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As Campaign Cash Rolls In, 2 House Races Tilt To Democrats

Alex Brandon
Rep. Conor Lamb.

Money is starting to pour into Pennsylvania's midterm congressional races and, with the GOP's control of the U.S. House on the line, ominous signs are surfacing for Republicans in races that several months ago had been considered even contests.

Republican groups, including the National Republican Congressional Committee, have begun airing TV attack ads to protect freshman Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick in suburban Philadelphia and to try to oust three-term Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright in northeastern Pennsylvania, where President Donald Trump did unexpectedly well in 2016.

But Republican groups are not spending money — yet, anyway — in two closely watched contests: one in suburban Pittsburgh and one in the Allentown area that had been viewed as tossups after May's primary election.

Pennsylvania, with 18 congressional seats, is a crucial building block in the Democratic effort to wipe out the GOP's 23-seat House majority, and Democrats have reason to be optimistic about capturing several seats.

Polls are finding that Democratic voters inflamed by Trump are more enthusiastic about voting in the Nov. 6 election, and a court-ordered redrawn map of district boundaries is giving them hope in places they had had little before.

"For all those years we had five congresspeople out of 18 and that meant that only five districts in Pennsylvania identified Democratically," Nancy Patton Mills, the state Democratic Party chairwoman, told a party dinner crowd earlier this month. "And now, we have 18 districts and they're all in play."

Under the old districts, Republicans won 13 of Pennsylvania's 18 seats in three straight elections, but newly drawn suburban seats around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, in particular, are within their grasp.

In two open Republican seats in suburban Philadelphia, Democrats Chrissy Houlahan and Mary Gay Scanlon, both first-time candidates, are heavy favorites.

In an Allentown-area seat, Democrat Susan Wild and Republican Marty Nothstein are vying for an open seat, and analysts had once viewed the contest as even.

But Wild has a substantial cash advantage, and a new Monmouth University poll shows Wild ahead in a close race, even though it said neither candidate is particularly well-known.

Nothstein strategist Mark Harris said the campaign is focused on what it can achieve on its own, even if Republican groups have not committed money to the race.

"I'm confident that when people are needed in a close race they'll be there, but all we can do is focus on getting Marty's commonsense message out there about fixing broken Washington," Harris said.

In suburban Pittsburgh, newly minted Rep. Conor Lamb is challenging three-term Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus in a quirk of the new court-ordered districts that pits the two incumbents against each other.

Voters in the district gave Trump a slight edge in 2016's presidential election. But a Monmouth University poll in August found Lamb substantially ahead of Rothfus, likely aided by the $6 million-plus Lamb and Democrats spent to carry him to a narrow, nationally watched victory in a March special election in a solidly Republican district.

Rothfus backers insist he shouldn't be counted out.

"I think people underestimate Keith," said Pennsylvania's Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai, who lives in the district. "He's a very tireless worker and campaigner; he's well-liked on a personal level."

The National Republican Congressional Committee postponed a scheduled TV ad buy from September to October. A spokesman, Chris Martin, declined to publicly discuss campaign strategy, but said the NRCC had not reduced the amount of money it reserved to help Rothfus by "one penny."

On Saturday, Trump issued an endorsement of Rothfus on Twitter, saying he "is strong on Crime, the Border, and our Second Amendment. Loves our Military and our Vets."

In the meantime, both Rothfus and Lamb avoid mentioning Trump in their TV ads. Rothfus is airing an attack ad that asks, "Who's Conor Lamb protecting?"

For his part, Lamb attacks "special interests" in an ad that recounts his special election victory: "It was the longest of long shots, a Marine who had never held office up against the most powerful special interests in the nation. ... Now Conor's running again and the same outside groups are back with all their money."

A Pittsburgh-area Democratic campaign consultant, Mike Mikus, said he expects a solid victory by Lamb, buoyed by Democratic voters in small cities along the Ohio River, suburban Republicans who are repulsed by Trump and disaffected Democrats who backed Trump over Hillary Clinton.

"If I were the Republicans," Mikus said, "I wouldn't spend a dime here."

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