(a recurring series, for all click here)
Running along the border with New Jersey, the small smattering of metropolitan areas about eighty miles north of Philadelphia forms the nexus of Pennsylvania’s fifteenth district. Mainly composed of Lehigh and Northampton counties and small parts of Montgomery and Berks Counties, the 15th District contains the cities of Easton, Allentown, Bethlehem and Emmaus. During the mid-century, the area was home to large industrial operations like Bethlehem Steel and MAC Trucks, but these operations moved on, leaving the area with a changing economic picture. Unions were never as strong here as they were in Philadelphia and the western end of the state, and small farmers had dominated the area prior to industrialization, which meant that the area was not impacted like those areas when the large factories left. Small businesses and white-collar industries moved in and took up the slack, as did a large group of New York City residents. The area’s largest employer is now the Lehigh Valley Hospital, and the former Bethlehem Steel campus is slated to be taken over by a casino. Historically, Allentown had always served as something of an afterthought between the large cities of Philadelphia and New York, but it has seen something of a growing role in recent years. The area has been in a boom for about the past decade, with money flowing in from the high-priced housing market and lower taxes bringing in wealthy people from New Jersey and New York. With that, however, has come increasing crime rates in all the cities of the area, and Allentown has become the center of at least one brutal gang. The District is closely divided, the most so in the state. It picked the presidential winner in the elections after 1948, and reflecting Pennsylvania’s increasing Democratic tilt, picked the Democrat the past two cycles by extremely small margins. Bush lost by only about 2500 votes in 2000, but he improved his standing in 2004, holding Kerry to a 726 vote lead. Despite this, the DCCC has not sent significant amounts of money here in years, as they have failed to recruit a top challenger since 2000. Former Congressmen include Don Ritter, Paul McHale and Pat Toomey(yeay, PAT!).
The current congressman from the fifteenth district is Congressman Charlie Dent, who was first elected in 2004. Dent grew up in the area, and he went to college in nearby Penn State. After working a series of odd jobs, he ran for the State House against an incumbent Democrat in 1990 and won in a heavily Democratic district. Dent moved to the state Senate in 1998, and after serving for six years, ran to replace Pat Toomey. The 2004 election came after a series of three close fought contests, with Democrats trying to beat the popular conservative tavern owner and coming up short every time. The Democrats, deterred after pouring resources into the district against Toomey, did not seriously contest Dent’s election, running Massachusetts businessman Joe Driscoll. Driscoll was unable to get past his carpetbagger status, and Dent’s warm nature, his moderate Harrisburg record, and his ability to charm voters led him to a 59-40 victory over Driscoll. In 2006, Dent faced little opposition for re-election, sweeping aside Northampton County Commissioner Charles Dertinger by 10 points. In the House, Dent has lived up to his promises of being an independent Republican, joining the Republican Main Street Partnership and amassing a voting record of one of the most moderate Republicans in Congress. He has voted with his party only 84.2% of the time, beating out Pennsylvania colleague Jim Gerlach by only .7%. Dent has championed alternative energy programs with Gerlach, and has also been vocal in his role on the House Homeland Security Committee.
The 15th District stands in sharp contrast to Jim Gerlach’s 6th District; while both are very marginal districts, Gerlach has barely won three times, while Dent’s
two opponents were hardly B-list candidates, enabling him to win by 10 and 20 point margins.. Considering the layout of this district, the 2008 election gave the Democrats a chance to expand their majority here in the Lehigh Valley. However, most of the strong and respected high-profile Democrats in the area are either prepping for another run, like Lehigh County Executive Don Cunningham, or simply not interested, like Sen. Boscola or Northampton Executive John Stoffa. Dent has amassed both a sizable fundraising lead, and a measure of respect as a moderate on many issues, an undeniable advantage in this closely fought district. The dearth of A-list Democrats means that the Democrats will nominate one-time mayoral candidates Siobhan “Sam” Bennett
, who has failed to make impressive fundraising numbers or to generate even the least media attention. The DCCC is likely to focus on defending incumbents elsewhere, and if it does attempt to capture seats, it will not be here. Even though Dent’s 2006 win was closer than expected, especially after Democratic wave that led to the loss of about a dozen seats in PA, NJ, NY & CT, he still easily beat his opponent. Barring a Dent collapse, he should pull of another fairly large win this cycle. However, look for this district to be more competitive in 2010 and 2012, especially if Cunningham passes on a 2010 statewide run.
Charlie Dent(R)- 54%
Charles Dertinger(D)- 44%
Charlie Dent(R)- 59%
Joe Driscoll(D)- 39%
Pat Toomey(R)- 57%
Ed O'Brian(D)- 43%
Michael Barone’s Almanac