HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania—Eugene DePasquale and Sean Parnell couldn’t be more different politically. DePasquale is a seasoned statewide-elected official and Democrat from York County, Pennsylvania, while Parnell is a western Pennsylvania Republican newcomer who has never run for office. Yet they share one very important thing this year: They are both challenging incumbent members of Congress in Pennsylvania districts President Donald Trump won in 2016.
Both of their races tell the story of not just how truly uncertain the Keystone State is politically but also how completely divided it is.
They also show us how hard it is to predict results in this state, both for the presidential election and for which party might eventually hold the majority in the Pennsylvania congressional delegation—or whether it will remain split, with some of the partisan officeholders rearranging seats.
“Interestingly, Pennsylvania is the only state that currently has an exactly split (U.S.) House delegation by party,” noted Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“The split is a good illustration of how divided Pennsylvania is,” he said of the 9-9 partisan split. The state has swung wildly since 2006 in terms of who holds the state House and congressional majorities, with the trends often serving as a harbinger for the entire country.
In 2006, moderate House Democrats swept out entrenched Republican members in Pennsylvania. Republicans swung the state delegation majority back in their party’s direction in 2010 and helped the national GOP gain the majority in the process. The delegation became more Republican in 2012. Six years later, that 13-5 majority became a 9-9 split.
While Parnell is effectively running as an outsider, DePasquale is taking the opposite tactic in his race.
First elected as the state’s auditor general in 2012, DePasquale’s run for reelection in 2016 happened with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket. “Trump won the district, as did I,” he deadpanned. “While we all know there’s some people that are always voting Republican, some people always vote Democrat. There was a pretty big chunk of people here that voted for both of us.”
DePasquale is challenging Rep. Scott Perry, a Cumberland County Republican and decorated military veteran who served in the Pennsylvania National Guard. In 2018, Perry barely held his seat in the midterms after the Democrat-led Pennsylvania state Supreme Court decided in February to redraw the districts of the entire state, turning his district much less Republican than that of his former seat.
Parnell is a decorated Army veteran who earned a Bronze Star for valor. He is challenging Representative Conor Lamb, a current Marine reservist, former federal prosecutor and Allegheny County Democrat who became the darling of Democrats in the 2018 midterms first by scoring a squeaker in a nationally covered spring special election in what was then the 18th Congressional District, a district that overwhelmingly voted for Trump. Lamb won again that November with a sizable victory in a new district that voted for Trump by 2.5 percentage points in 2016.
Since then, Lamb, like all of the newly elected Democrats who won in swing districts, has had to face the realities that every member faces once they hit Washington, no matter which party they are attached to: blood-sport politics that often force votes on volatile issues they never ran on, like impeachment.
In both races in 2018, Lamb ran as a traditional western Pennsylvania Democrat who told The Atlantic that voters wanted “someone down there who’s actually gonna attack the problem, not attack the other side.”
All four men are navigating a shifting electorate whose voters are questioning whether they belong in their ancestral parties, with culture, rootedness, institutions and newly formed community-centric tribalism playing an outsized role in their decision-making.
Kondik sees the Lamb-Parnell race, like the 1st and 7th Congressional District races, as competitive races where Republican challengers might upset Democratic incumbents.
He adds that the best Republican target is probably the 8th Congressional District, which is held by Democratic Rep. Matthew Cartwright. “But PA-7 and the Lamb seat are also reasonable targets,” he said of the Lehigh Valley-centric district held by Democratic Rep. Susan Wild.
One thing is certain in the districts Kondik outlined to watch: All of them have the potential to become much more competitive for their incumbents than perhaps originally expected. Pennsylvania, as always, will be in the center of which way the winds might blow nationwide.
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