KUTZTOWN, Pa. (WOMENSENEWS)--Hobbling on a twisted ankle past tractor displays, sheep corrals and all manner of fried foods, Pennsylvania political hopeful Lois Murphy spent a recent afternoon trying to convince people at a small-town fair here to try something new: back a Democrat for the House of Representatives.
It's a message she's been spreading through this Republican-leaning district northwest of Philadelphia for the better part of three years now, ever since she first decided to run against the incumbent Republican representative, Jim Gerlach.
Murphy lost her first attempt in 2004, but came within a hair--6,371 votes--of pulling off what would have been a stunning upset in an otherwise bad year for the Democratic Party. Gerlach's margin of victory was the smallest for any incumbent reelected that year.
But this year will put her over the top, says Murphy, a leading candidate in a crop of more than 230 women who have filed for party nomination in this year's midterm congressional elections.
A poll conducted last month by Democratic polling firm Garin-Hart-Yang Research Group showed Murphy basically tied with Gerlach; she was favored by 42 percent of those polled, he by 41 percent. The candidates have also raised about the same amount--slightly more than $2 million each--according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
"The voters of the district, like voters in a lot of the Northeast, have really become persuaded that it's time for a change," Murphy said at an informal house party held in her honor on Aug. 17 before she headed across town to the local fair.
Republicans "are really grasping at straws at this point," she continued. "On all of the major challenges that are facing people right now, they are letting people down, and people know it."
Gerlach did not return calls for comment. But he has sought to distance himself from President Bush. In one of his televised campaign ads he says, "When I think he's wrong, I let him know that."
Gerlach, a two-term incumbent, represents a district that was redrawn after the 2000 census to slightly favor Republicans, although it backed Democrats in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.
Gerlach Strikes Moderate Stance
He has worked to position himself as a moderate to appeal to constituents in this swing district. He has voted against GOP-led efforts to amend the Constitution to prohibit gay marriage and to cut $40 billion from federal social service programs.
He has also voted to ban degrading treatment of U.S. detainees and repeal restrictions on federal spending on embryonic stem cells, and he touts himself as an environmentalist.
But Gerlach supported President Bush an average of 79 percent of the time between 2003 and 2005, according to Congressional Quarterly, an independent political magazine, and he voted with party leaders an average of 86 percent of the time over the same period. This record puts him in danger in an election year with an anti-incumbent tone.
A poll conducted August 3-6 by the Washington Post and ABC News showed President Bush with a 40-percent job approval rating nationwide. That score dipped considerably in the Northeast, where Bush earned a 28-percent approval rating.
"Being in suburban Philadelphia, you are dealing with a Northeastern region that is very hostile to George W. Bush and you have an incumbent who's identified with President Bush," said Jon Delano, a professor of public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and a campaign analyst on Pennsylvania television stations.
Seat Ripe for Takeover
Delano thinks Murphy, a lawyer and mother of two children, has one of the best shots of anyone in her state at unseating a Republican incumbent. "By every Pennsylvania political analysis, this seat is the most ripe for Democrat taking," he said.
Independent political analyst Charlie Cook, a Washington, D.C.-based author of the non-partisan Cook Political Report, ranked Gerlach as the most vulnerable incumbent in Pennsylvania in his Aug. 16 edition of the report.
Cook gave Murphy, along with Connecticut Democrats Diane Farrell, a selectwoman from Westport running against GOP Rep. Chris Shays, and Joe Courtney, a state lawmaker running against Republican Rep. Chris Simmons, the best odds of defeating Republican incumbents in the Northeast this fall. Cook considers 10 other Republicans in the region in some danger of losing their seats.
If Democrats do well in these districts, it could reverse a trend that has weeded Democrats out of Congress. That shift hit full throttle in 1994, when Republicans wrested control of Congress from the Democrats.
Delano, however, doubts a major partisan shift in Murphy's region.
"Republicans will remain strong in the Northeast as long as they reflect the values of Northeastern voters," he said, pointing to two Republican women--Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine--who have easily won reelection to the U.S. Senate. "People are too quick to write national epitaphs."
Seizing the Advantage
Murphy is working hard to put anti-Bush sentiment to her advantage. "The real turning point was Hurricane Katrina," Murphy said about the anti-GOP shift she hopes to ride. "That moment was really a reckoning for people when they felt they didn't feel their government was even accomplishing the basic tasks we expect from our government."
When it comes to issues that affect women, a key difference between Murphy and Gerlach involves abortion. Murphy supports reproductive choice and Gerlach opposes it; he has voted to make it a crime to transport a minor across state lines to have an abortion, to outlaw procedures banned by "partial birth" abortion laws and to make it a separate offense to violently harm a fetus. He also opposes one of Murphy's key talking points, an increase in the minimum wage, which would disproportionately affect women because they are more likely to hold low-paying jobs.
Ellen Manderbach, a retiree and a volunteer at the Democratic booth at the Kutztown fair, is buying Murphy's pitch. Even though the district is full of die-hard farmers of German ancestry who tend to hold conservative views and tend to vote for Republicans, "people are in the right mood to swing to the Democrats," she said.
Still, the Democratic brand can be a tough sell in a rural and suburban district that hosts Amish and other Pennsylvania Dutch communities that have stubbornly resisted social and technological change for centuries.
Kenneth Lutz, a 70-year-old retired mechanic who was listening to a country music band at the fair, said Democrats don't offer a better alternative to the GOP.
"The Democrats are really pushing, but they don't come up with any solutions. They just bash Bush. That's it."
Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women's eNews.
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