Election Surprises Brewing in Central PA?

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It’s probably been decades since Democrats held any of the 20-plus state House seats in south central PA other than the 3 that are based in the cities of Harrisburg, Lancaster and York. (One exception that I know of: Jeff Coy held the Shippensburg-Chambersburg-area seat from 1983 to 2004.) But this year could bring a breakthrough. There is a strong chance that one or more of these three Democrats will break that lock, get Republicans to stop taking the region for granted, put Republicans on the defensive – and most importantly, give the area better representation:

Chris Dietz in the 104th state House district (part of Dauphin County),

Rob Teplitz in the 15th state Senate district (parts of Dauphin and York counties) and

Gene Stilp in the 11th congressional district (a gerrymandered monstrosity that stretches from near the New York state border almost to the Maryland border – here’s another map).

(Disclosure: I’ve donated to Dietz several times and am one of probably hundreds who have given advice or ideas to Dietz and Teplitz.)

I live in Dietz’s district, and Helm and the Republicans certainly seem to be taking Dietz more seriously – they’ve sent several vicious, distorting attack mailers, which I don’t recall them doing against the previous three Dems who ran against Helm. Dietz has sent plenty of mail of his own, about as much as Helm, far more than the previous three Dems were able to. Dietz also headed up the previous Dem’s get-out-the-vote effort in the northern half of the district.

Helm only won by about 300 votes in 2010, even though there was a Republican tide going the other way in so many other state legislative and congressional races in PA. (I have to admit I didn’t see her near-loss coming even though I live in the district.) She has been a fairly lackluster rep, not doing much of anything that any other rep wouldn’t do, and her increasingly conservative record is a poor fit for a moderate district.

Dietz was a registered independent for many years, and he can relate to people with economic struggles – he was laid off from his engineering job for several months, and while he was fortunate enough to be called back to work, he knows not everyone has. He’s also from the rural, more Republican part of the district, and between that and his ability to work across party lines on Millersburg borough council (where he’s been elected vice president and then president despite being in the minority), he should do better than average for a Dem in that part of the district.

Teplitz has been working for years in the auditor general’s office to save tax dollars. He’s running against a lobbyist and former county Republican chairman (John McNally) who actually has the nerve to call himself the outsider and Teplitz the insider. Seriously. Fortunately, Teplitz just went up with a TV ad pushing back on a McNally attack, knocking McNally for aligning himself with the Corbett education agenda during the primary, and reinforcing Teplitz’s positives on education. Democrats only lost this seat by about 4% in 2008, and the old lines are still in effect thanks to Republican overreach in redistricting. Teplitz has also wisely put “Obama-Teplitz” signs up in heavily Democratic neighborhoods.

Stilp probably needs little introduction. His unconventional big-prop PR events have gotten him a lot of name recognition, which along with Dietz’s get-out-the-vote effort for him, is probably why he came so close to defeating Helm for state House in 2010. Now he’s taken on a bigger challenge, but he may be uniquely suited to it. While he hasn’t raised a lot of money, his above-average name recognition and his roots in two population centers of the district (Luzerne and Dauphin counties) might help him pull off the upset against Lou Barletta.

Central PA Democrats, if you want to have maximum impact with your dollars, door-knocking and phone-banking time, these are probably the three races where you should focus your time and money.

In the 105th District in Dauphin County, Democrat Kelly Jean McEntee also deserves a mention for her challenge to longtime incumbent Republican state Rep. Ron Marsico. She got on the local TV news recently — not always easy to do in a state House race. In the ABC-27 story, Marsico actually used the words “I am entitled.” (Ouch.) (Disclosure: I’ve donated once to McEntee.)

The 105th is a more Republican district than the Dietz vs. Helm district, but I didn’t think Stilp was going to pull off his near-upset against the 2010 conservative tide. So who knows. Most elections have at least one surprise.

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A reminder of what the Keystone Politics roundup of guest blogger introductions mentioned earlier this month: I blog at KP on my *own* time. As you can guess, that means any opinions I express here are my own, not of my employer.

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