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2010: Why Pennsylvania Is The Most Competitive State

A year ago many considered Pat Toomey too conservative to be a viable contender for the Senate in Pennsylvania, one of the most culturally and geographically diverse states in the country. But with a changing national political climate that is mirrored in the Keystone State, Toomey's chances of knocking off the state's incumbent senator look increasingly more likely.

A Franklin and Marshall College Poll released last week found Toomey leading Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter by 4 points. After five terms as senator, 34 years since his first bid for statewide office, last year's switch from the Republican to Democratic Party and a primary challenge from Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), Specter's Senate seat is up for grabs.

In the state that President Obama carried by a 10-point margin, Toomey's lead in the polls is just one piece of evidence that Pennsylvania is likely the most competitive state in the country:

Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell is term-limited and -- seven weeks before the May 18 primary -- the race to replace him is a toss-up; nine of the 19 congressional districts could be competitive; two of the only GOP districts nationwide that Democrats hope to pick up are in Pennsylvania; and the special election to replace the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) will likely take on national significance as a key indicator for the November elections.

"Pennsylvania has a history of swinging back and forth from Republican to Democrat, Democrat to Republican in statewide races," said Robb Austin, a Pennsylvania political consultant and former state representative.

This has been true in the Senate -- Democrat Harris Wofford won a special election to replace John Heinz in 1991, and was then defeated by conservative Republican Rick Santorum, who was knocked out four years ago by Democrat Robert Casey Jr. -- as well as in gubernatorial elections.

"If you look at the history going back to the '70s, which in politics is pretty recent history," said Austin, "they elected Milton Shapp, an ultra liberal; followed by Republican Dick Thornburgh; followed by Robert Casey, a moderate Democrat; then Tom Ridge, a war hero moderate; then Ed Rendell, a Philadelphia city liberalist."

The likely Republican nominee for governor this year is Tom Corbett, the state attorney general who scored a big victory last week in his "Bonusgate" prosecutions of state lawmakers who used taxpayer dollars to pay for campaign work. Meanwhile, four Democrats are battling for the nomination while polling shows seven-in-10 voters remain undecided.

"Tom Corbett is going to be hard to beat after eight years of Ed Rendell," said Austin. "That's just a fact."

In the last two election cycles, state Democrats picked up 5 House seats, Rendell won re-election with 60 percent of the vote, Casey walked away with a GOP Senate seat with nearly as many votes and Obama became the fifth straight Democratic presidential nominee to win the state. With a 1.2 million voter registration advantage this year, why is the state so competitive?

Franklin and Marshall polling director Terry Madonna says it's all about the lack of excitement in the Democratic base. His polling has found "a substantial enthusiasm gap" between the two parties -- as much as 13 points.

That manifested in the November elections for seven state appeals court judges. While the country was focused on Republican victories in the New Jersey and Virginia gubernatorial elections, Republicans also won six of seven statewide judicial elections in Pennsylvania.

"Last fall we had these innocuous appeals court elections -- nobody knows and nobody cares about," Madonna told RealClearPolitics. "This is all about turnout. The Republicans won six of seven of them and shocked everybody. The people that Obama brought in 2008 -- that brought the edge up -- no longer exist, and the Republicans were able to turn the elections last fall into a big advantage for them."

A year ago, with the Philly suburbs trending more and more Democratic, "most of us thought the state was on the verge of becoming New Jersey instead of Ohio," Madonna added.

While Madonna doesn't see nine House seats flipping party control, he says "there are a lot of seats that could go either way."

Here's a look at the nine most competitive Pennsylvania districts:

--The 3rd District, located in the northwest corner of the state, is a moderately Republican district John McCain carried by a mere 17 votes. Despite being outspent two-to-one, Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper (D) defeated Republican incumbent Phil English in 2008. Six Republicans, none with political experience, are vying to take on Dahlkemper, whose vote in favor of health care reform could play a role in the race.

--In the Pittsburgh-area 4th District, while Rep. Jason Altmire's (D) vote against the reform bill may have helped his cause in the general election, one person -- Allegheny County Labor Council President Jack Shea -- is considering a primary challenge. McCain won this district with 55 percent, one of his highest percentages in the state, and many expect former U.S. Attorney Mary Beth Buchanan (R) to offer a tough challenge.

--The 6th District was initially an open district before Rep. Jim Gerlach (R) opted out of the governor's race in a tip-of-the-hat to Corbett. Obama won 58 percent here, and two Democrats -- former Philly Inquirer editorial writer Doug Pike and physician Manan Trivedi -- are looking to oust him.

--Delaware County's 7th District is one of two open Democratic seats that Republicans are targeting. Former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan is one of the GOP's most highly touted candidates in the country; likewise, national Democrats have committed to support the campaign of state Rep. Bryan Lentz.

--On the opposite side of Philadelphia from the 7th, 8th District Rep. Patrick Murphy (D) is facing a rematch from 2006, when he defeated Republican incumbent Mike Fitzpatrick by just 1,500 votes. Murphy spent nearly $4 million in 2008, but some believe Fitzpatrick waited the right amount of time to mount a comeback.

--Rep. Chris Carney (D), one of four Democrats first elected in 2006, won northeastern Pennsylvania's 10th District from scandal-plagued Republican Don Sherwood. He won easily in 2008 despite being outspent by nearly $1 million and McCain winning 54 percent. Carney was one of the Democrats President Obama called to win their health care reform vote, and the congressman was one of the last to sign on to the bill.

--In the Scranton-based 11th District, Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D) is in for another challenging re-election bid. He's facing a spirited primary from Lackawanna County Commissioner Corey O'Brien, and if Lou Barletta wins the Republican primary, Kanjorski will face the Hazleton mayor for the second election in a row.

--A special election for Murtha's 12th District will be held concurrently with the May 18 primary. Running are businessman Tim Burns (R) and Murtha's congressional district director Mark Critz (D). "I think it's a question of whether or not they want a new, fresh start," said Austin. "It's a good argument" for Critz to campaign as "a younger version of Murtha. ... But on the other hand it's sort of a Tea Party district in a lot of ways, so I would not be surprised at all if that district goes Republican."

--Rep. Charlie Dent's (R) 15th District is perhaps national Democrats' top target and where their most highly touted recruit is making a bid. Obama won 56 percent here and John Kerry narrowly carried the district in 2004. At the beginning of the year, Bethlehem Mayor John Callahan (D) had slightly more money in the bank than Dent, both with more than $600,000.

With Democrats currently dominating the state's governor's mansion and congressional delegation, the competitiveness of the state has much to do with the kind of year it is for the Republican Party. With a large voter registration advantage, though, Democrats will be working hard to turn out the vote.

"It's not going to be a slam dunk for Republicans," said Austin. "They're going to have to run smart campaigns and have good candidates."