Red Caucus Blues
Three Republican suburban Philadelphia congressmen who serve blue state swing districts continually face tough votes that force them to choose between caucus and constituents. The hard decisions they face are made easier by the latest redrawing of their district boundaries.
Was it only last October 1 that the US House of Representatives insisted that the funding of government would cost a one-year delay to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)? And that our three suburban congressmen stuck with their Republican caucus, thus enabling the first government shutdown since the mid-’90s?
But in the recent vote that opened the government and allowed the US to pay its bills, the three, Jim Gerlach (R-PA), Pat Meehan (R-PA) and Mike Fitzpatrick (R-PA), either “caved” or “saw the light,” depending on your point of view, and voted affirmatively. A total of 144 of their House Republican colleagues voted against the bill; that is, voted for the chaos to continue.
It’s never easy for members of congress in swing districts. Take, for example, the recent House vote to cut $40 billion over 10 years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. House leaders wanted the cuts, but could barely muster a majority vote, narrowly prevailing by 217-210. Of our three Republican congressmen, just one, Jim Gerlach, voted affirmatively. Significantly, both Mike Fitzpatrick and Pat Meehan defied their caucus and voted no.
In terms of presidential politics, the three districts have this much in common:
* Pennsylvania is a blue state. It gave Barack Obama resounding victory margins in 2008 and 2012.
* All three districts switched their presidential preferences in the last election. Obama beat John McCain in each district in 2008. Four years later, Mitt Romney prevailed in each.
Here is a closer look at our congressmen:
* Jim Gerlach, Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional district. Gerlach was first elected in 2002, and won resoundingly in this past election, 57-43. It was the second time in a row that Gerlach beat Democrat Manan Trivedi, a doctor and Iraq war veteran. The 6th district is sprawled throughout the western suburbs, with bent-finger-like protractions dividing towns and communities all the way up to Lehigh County. It is centered in Montgomery County, and extends southwest to Berks County and the city of Coatesville.
* Pat Meehan, 7th Congressional District. The former US Attorney got lucky by first running in the Republican wave election of 2010, beating Bryan Lentz, 55-44. He was easily reelected in 2012. This seat belonged to Joe Sestak, who vacated only to lose to Pat Toomey (one of 18 Senators to vote to prolong the shutdown) in a classic 2010 US Senate showdown. The 7th District’s outer reaches touch Berks and Lancaster Counties, but it is concentrated in Delaware County. More about those boundaries later.
* Mike Fitzpatrick, 8th district. Fitzpatrick represented the district for one term, 2005-2007, and then won the seat back in 2010. He beat Democrat Kathryn Boockvar handily in 2012. The 8th district is mainly in Bucks County. After redistricting, the district gave Mitt Romney the narrowest of wins: one-tenth of one percentage point.
Of the three, Mike Fitzpatrick is considered the most vulnerable in the 2014 midterm election. An internal Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) email obtained by the non-partisan publication CQ Roll Call revealed that 17 House Republicans are prime Democratic targets for the upcoming midterm. Fitzpatrick’s name was on that list…the lone congressman from Pennsylvania. (By the way, two GOP congressman from the New Jersey side of the Philadelphia region were listed as well: Jon Runyan and Frank LoBiondo.)
Finding credible candidates to challenge incumbents is difficult business. In Pennsylvania’s 8th, the DCCC believe they have their man in Kevin Strouse, a political newcomer. Strouse is an Iraq war veteran and former CIA officer. Democrats hope their candidate’s war credentials will remind 8th district voters of former Congressman Patrick Murphy, himself an Iraq veteran. It was Murphy who beat Fitzpatrick in 2006 to serve Bucks County for two terms, before Fitzpatrick reclaimed the seat in the 2010 wave election.
So the question is, why aren’t Congressmen Gerlach and Meehan on that targeting list? Effective candidate recruitment might change that down the road. The recent shutdown/debt limit crisis might also alter the terrain. For now, the relative safety of Gerlach and Meehan boils down to one word: gerrymandering. Terry Madonna, the Franklin & Marshall College political scientist and pollster, described Pennsylvania’s post- 2010 redistricting as “one of the most effective in the nation.” For the second decade in a row, Republicans maintained control of both legislative houses and the governorship, and perfected district boundaries that to this day seem remarkable given the state’s blue drift in presidential politics.
Pennsylvania Republicans employed the gerrymandering technique called “packing,” which Wikipedia defines as “to concentrate as many voters of one type into a single electoral district in order to reduce their influence in other districts.” Therefore, GOP boundary-makers drew circles around areas concentrated by Democrats, and then carved up the remaining districts to minimize the random Democrats residing outside of their domains. The result: Five or so concentrated Democratic districts, and the rest with demographic numbers favoring Republicans. Of course, the 6th, 7th and 8th districts fall into the latter category.
Meehan’s 7th district can serve as a prototype for the practice of gerrymandering. (The term is named after former Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, who in 1812 signed off on redrawing state senate districts, one of which was in the shape of a salamander.) The 7th district is spread throughout suburban Philadelphia’s five-county area in a massive, shapeless form. In one stretch, it is a mere 800 feet narrow (a 27-yard football romp). Numbers were run by Azavea, a “geospatial” analysis firm in Philadelphia, to measure the compactness of congressional districts throughout the US. Their result: the 7th district is the fifth least compact district in the country.
And why carve up a congressional district to produce such a chaotic optic? It’s all about winning. One metric says it all: Before redistricting, the 7th district, according to Azavea, was 52.8% Democrat and 47.2% Republican. After: 48.2 Democrat, 51.8 Republican.
The voting records of our three congressmen are very similar, and seem to reflect more their caucus than their blue state swing district constituency. The National Journal’s Almanac of American Politics lists the voting records of every congressmen by way of numerical rating by outside groups that lean either liberal or conservative. The scale is zero to 100%, unfavorable to favorable. For brevity, I’ve plucked the 2012 ratings from two representative groups: The Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) is a long-time liberal lobbying group; the American Conservative Union (ACU) is its conservative counterpart. Here are the ratings.
Gerlach: ADA-0% ACU-68%
Meehan: ADA-5% ACU-56%
Fitzpatrick: ADA-10% ACU-52%
The numbers are skewed by the fact that the House of Representatives voted to defund Obamacare over 30 times in that period, with obvious implications on the scoring. And how did our three congressmen vote in those meaningless exercises? Well, let’s just say that somewhere ol’ Governor Gerry smiles knowingly.