A STRANGE BELLWETHER: PENNSYLVANIA’S HOUSE

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The five competitive 2020 House races in Pennsylvania read like an abridged version of the national House race. They include the suburban battlegrounds, the exurban battlegrounds, a Romney-Clinton districts, an Obama-Trump district, a Republican in a seat that Clinton carried and a Democrat in a seat Trump carried.

The results of these districts in 2020 will likely be a bellwether for which party wins control of the House. Unfortunately, we won’t know the results of these five districts until we know who won the House, but developments in these districts over the next year will give some insight into which party is favored to win the House and their path to doing so.

The map below shows the current partisan makeup of Pennsylvania’s Representatives.   
Map Created at 270towin

The next map shows the current ratings1As rated by Sabato’s Crystal Balls for 2020 . Brown (District 1) is a Toss Up, light blue (7, 8) and light red (10) are Leaning Democrat or Republican, darker red (16) is Likely Republican, and dark red and dark blue are Safely Republican or Democrat.
Map Created at 270towin

The last two maps, at the bottom of the post, are meant to give some context for the following analysis. They show Pennsylvania’s average income (as of 2014) and population shift (between 2000 and 2018) by county.

Pennsylvania 1st: The Suburban Toss Up and the Republican in Clinton Country
Pennsylvania’s First District is a classic 2018 House battleground: Wealthy suburbs outside a major urban center. Based outside of Philadelphia, the first district is one of only three districts in the entire country in which Hillary Clinton won in 2016 and a Republican House member won in 2018. Of those three, only two are running for re-election in 2020. One of the two is Pennsylvania’s Brian Fitzpatrick, a moderate Republican who opposed appealing the ACA, has been endorsed by labor unions like AFL-CIO and gun safety groups and advocates like Everytown for Gun Safety and Gabby Giffords.

Clinton carried the district by 2% in 2016 and in 2018, Fitzpatrick won by 2.5%. The incumbent could have a hard time holding the seat in a presidential year, where the presidential race will heavily influence downballot votes. The district is currently rated a Toss Up. If Democrats are able to win this seat, they will almost certainly be able to hold onto the House. If Republicans hold it, they could be on the way to taking back a good number of House seats. In other words, Pennsylvania’s first district represents the districts that are necessary, but not sufficient for Republicans to win back the House.  

Pennsylvania 8th: The Democrat in Trump Country
Pennsylvania’s Eighth District is territory where, in my opinion, Republicans should be bullish. While it has some more urban areas — Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, and Hazelton — none of these are massive urban centers with very dense cores or suburbs and there is plenty of exurban and rural terrain for Republicans to gain ground in. The district had a massive shift between 2012, when Obama won it by 11.9% to 2016, when Trump won it by 9.6% — a move of over 20%. The district seems ripe for Republicans to win over ancestrally Democratic voters in the Scranton and Wilkes-Barre area who like Trump and the new Republican Party.

If Republicans can peel off incumbent Democrat Matt Cartwright, who won with an impressive 9.3% margin in this Trumpy looking district, they’ll be on their way to tightening the House margin and could flip it. It would indicate their ability to win in many of the 31 districts that Trump won in 2016 but a Democrat won in 2018.

Pennsylvania 7th: The Exurban Lean Democratic, Trending Republican District
Republicans winning Pennsylvania 7th is where the tables would really start to turn against Democrats. The Seventh District is centered around the urban Lehigh Valley, but extends out to more exurban and rural territory. The district voted for both Obama and Clinton, although it has been trending more Republican every year. In 2008, Obama won it by 14.5%, in 2012 he won by 7% and in 2016, Clinton won by just 1.1%.

The Democratic incumbent, Susan Wild, won in early 2018 special election after the incumbent resigned due to a sexual harassment controversy. She then won re-election in the 2018 November election by an impressive 10% margin. Democrats in the Lehigh Valley benefited from the 2018 court mandated redistricting, which swapped out the eastern, rural, Republican leaning portion of their district for the more Democratic-friendly territory up north in Monroe County.

If Republicans are able to take Pennsylvania 7th, they are probably on their way to winning back the House. It would indicate that they have the strength the oust the new class of Democratic House members and win back seats that they lost by pretty large margins in 2018. It would also indicate success in districts that, while trending red for some time, had not fully embraced Trump in 2016. If Republicans are able to carry two of the first, eighth, and seventh districts, they are, in my book, favorites to win back the House.

Pennsylvania 10th: The Exurban Lean Republican District
On the other hand, if Democrats are able to flip the Republican-leaning Tenth District, they are probably on their way to expanding their 34-seat margin.

The district, while centered around the state capital Harrisburg, is mostly exurban and rural. For a state capital, Harrisburg is a surprisingly small city with a population of just around 50,000. The metropolitan region, though, including suburbs and exurbs is much larger at around 570,000. Unfortunately for Democrats, most of these communities outside the metropolitan core lean Republican. Democrats would need to somehow dominate in both turnout and margin in urban Harrisburg while also winning back more rural voters.

Democrat’s big advantage may be the incumbent Scott Perry, a hardline conservative, who underperforms in what should be a relatively easy Republican hold. While Trump expanded Romney’s 6.6% margin to 8.9% in 2016, Perry won by just 2.6% in 2018. While this might indicate a weak incumbent in Perry, it also shows that, even in an extremely friendly Democratic environment, Republicans still were able to hold onto the seat. And in 2020, with the presidential election influencing downballot races, House Democrats will have an even more difficult time peeling off the much-needed rural voters.

If Democrats are able to overcome the pretty substantial barriers in the Tenth District, they will have held the House and likely be expanding their majority.

Pennsylvania 16th: The Rural Likely Republican, Obama-Trump District
Finally, we have the Obama-Trump Sixteenth District. If Democrats win here, the watershed has broken and they’ll be dominating the House. The heavily rural district stretches along the top half of the state’s western border, not quite reaching the outskirts of Pittsburg. The only urban portion of the district is in the state’s northwestern corner, in Erie county. Outside of this, though, the district is almost all rural and red.

While Obama did win the district in 2008 by a slim 0.8%, he lost it four years later, indicating that the district has been moving rightward even before Trump came along. But Trump expanded Romney’s 4.8% win to a much larger 20%. The incumbent, Mike Kelly, won by 4.3% in the Democratic friendly 2018 midterms, symbolizing his staying power. If Democrats can somehow win back a seat that 1) has been trending red since 2008 2) swung heavily towards Trump 3) is heavily Rural and 4) has a Republican incumbent who held on in the “blue wave” of 2018, they’ll be on track to dominate the House and will probably have won the presidency and Senate too.

A Strange Bellwether For the Presidency and House
The traditional “bellwether” state for presidential elections used to be Ohio. But as demographic trends continue to change the Democratic and Republican coalitions, this is no longer true. Another state from the Midwest or Great Lakes regions, like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, will probably be the new “indicator” of the electoral college winner — at least for the 2020 election cycle.

Pennsylvania, though, gives insight into more than just the presidential race. The state, with its crosscutting urban, rural, midwestern, and northeastern characteristics gives a sort of synopsis of the national race for the House. The state’s first, seventh, eight, tenth, and sixteenth districts are the bellwethers for the House. They’ll be ones to watch leading up to the 2020 elections, telling us which types of districts are up for grabs and where the true 2020 House battleground will be.

Additional Maps


Source: Data Usa


Source: Twitter @XNeon