The Slatest

Democrats Play It Safe in Pennsylvania Primaries

CANONSBURG, PA - MARCH 14: Conor Lamb, Democratic congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th district, speaks to supporters at an election night rally March 14, 2018 in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. Lamb claimed victory against Republican candidate Rick Saccone, but many news outlets report the race as too close to call. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Conor Lamb, seen here speaking to supporters after the March special election, won the Democratic nomination in his new district on Tuesday. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Pennsylvania went to the polls on Tuesday for the first time since the state redrew its congressional map to make Democrats more competitive. Democratic voters responded by playing it safe, picking a bevy of establishment-friendly candidates who will be well-positioned to compete in districts that are considerably friendlier than they were just a few months ago.

Three of the newly minted Democratic nominees will start as clear favorites for open seats in districts that would have gone for Hillary Clinton two years ago. Another two nominees begin with even odds against Republican incumbents, and both of those Democrats have proved capable of bringing in serious campaign cash. Taken together, the five nominees could provide Democrats with more than a fifth of the 23 seats they need to take control of the House next year.

According to nonpartisan handicappers, Pennsylvania’s 5th and 6th districts represent Democrats best chances to flip GOP seats—not just in the state but in the entire nation. In the 5th, where GOP Rep. Patrick Meehan resigned in the face of an ethics probe, Democrats picked lawyer Mary Gay Scanlon over nine other candidates. The race looked too crowded to predict heading into Tuesday, but Scanlon ended up coasting to victory by double digits over her closest challenger, Philadelphia Deputy Mayor Rich Lazer, who was endorsed by Bernie Sanders. In the 6th, where GOP Rep. Ryan Costello isn’t seeking re-election, Air Force veteran Chrissy Houlahan ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania’s new 7th District, where GOP Rep. Charlie Dent would have run if he hadn’t retired this year, Democrats tapped Susan Wild, a former city solicitor who was backed by EMILY’s List. Wild narrowly beat John Morganelli, a well-known district attorney who angered progressives with his anti-abortion views and some kind words he once said about Donald Trump, and pastor Greg Edwards, who also received Sanders’ endorsement. The new district would have gone for Clinton by 1 point, and the Cook Political Report currently has it leaning Wild’s way.

Democrats also played it safe in two other Republican-held districts that are currently seen as toss-ups. In the 1st District, they nominated Scott Wallace, a wealthy lawyer who easily beat out a former Navy prosecutor, who was also recently registered as a Republican, along with a progressive activist who had trouble raising serious money for the race. Wallace has already poured $2.5 million of his own cash into his campaign, and is expected to spend more in his bid to unseat GOP Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick. And in the 17th District, Conor Lamb, who won a high-profile special election in March, ran unopposed in the primary for the redrawn district, and will now take on GOP Rep. Keith Rothfus. As of late last month, Lamb had outraised Rothfus by more than $5 million.

If there was any bad news for House Democrats on Tuesday night, it might have been that Lamb’s old opponent, Rick Saccone, lost his bid for redemption in the Republican primary. The 14th District, where Saccone was running, favors the GOP heavily. But so did the old 18th District, where Lamb pulled off the special-election shocker over Saccone two months ago.