KEYSTONE CROSSROADS – Democratic congressional hopeful Laura Quick and two campaign staffers recently set up shop for the afternoon inside a Panera Bread not too far from her home in Palmyra, Lebanon County.
They’d popped open their laptops on the table closest to a fireplace going full blast. That warmth would probably be welcome on most February afternoons, but it was an unseasonable 70 degrees outside.
“I asked them to turn it off, but they can’t,” explained Josh Brady, 23, Quick’s unofficial numbers guy.
So they decided to deal with the extra heat.
Quick, who’s running for the U.S. House of Representatives in the new 9th Congressional District, was making calls in hopes of drumming up volunteers to help her gather signatures for her nominating petition.
“I’m a Teamster running for Congress,” said Quick, a former UPS driver. “When they redistricted, I [wound] up kind of in your area. And I’m looking for some boots-on-the-ground help.”
This close to May’s primary, candidates such as Quick normally would be further along.
They typically know where their districts will be months or years before an election.
But this year has been anything but predictable in Pennsylvania.
In a decision that could have national political ramifications, the state Supreme Court struck down the commonwealth’s congressional map as unconstitutionally gerrymandered in January.
The Democratic-majority court mandated its own version of the map on Feb. 19. That was just a week before candidates needed to start circulating nominating petitions, a process already delayed weeks because of the ruling.
The map, though, could potentially change again.
Republican state lawmakers have filed multiple legal challenges seeking to to reverse the court’s ruling and revert to the map they created in 2011, when the GOP controlled all three branches of state government.
The interactive slider above compares Pennsylvania’s congressional map as adopted into law in 2011 with the court-drawn version released on Feb. 19.
Amid this uncertainty, Quick and other candidates are gearing up their campaigns and adjusting to the change in boundary lines.
“It’s, you know, the wild, wild west a little bit. Everybody is at a slight disadvantage,” Quick said.
Across the state, candidates’ responses have varied.
“That old saying, ‘May you live in interesting times. ’ This last month or so has been very interesting,” said state Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland. “It has not been fun.”
Bloom launched his campaign in the old 11th District, which U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta left open to run for the Senate.
Barletta, the Republican former mayor of Hazleton whose anti-immigrant crusade ended up nearly bankrupting the city, has held the seat since 2011. As drawn then, the district started near Hazleton, in Coal Country, and stretched southwest through the densely populated Capitol region, picking up agricultural Lebanon County and half of the city of Harrisburg along the way, before ending near Bloom’s hometown of North Middleton Township just outside Carlisle.
Bloom’s now in the eastern part of the 13th District, which goes from Gettysburg to Johnstown – and then some.
Its rural expanse comprises primarily precincts won consistently by Republicans.
“Whether the new map stands, or the new map gets thrown out and the old map is brought back – either of those two scenarios, actually, for my campaign, individually, presents a reasonably good scenario,” Bloom said. “But it’s causing a lot of chaos and trouble for candidates across state and, I think, is confusing the voters.”
In general, analysts say the court’s map has improved Democrats’ chances to pick up more seats in the House of Representatives, yielding a delegation that more closely reflects statewide voter activity and registration.
There are over a million more Democrats than Republicans registered to vote in Pennsylvania.
Since the old map was put in place, Republicans have held 13 of 18 of Pennsylvania’s congressional seats.
Incumbent Republican Ryan Costello is considered particularly vulnerable under the new plan. His 6th Congressional District picked up the cities of Reading and Coatesville and lost pieces of rural Lancaster County.
The interactive slider above compares changes to Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District.
Chester County Democrat Chrissy Houlahan is vying for the opportunity to face Costello in November’s general election.
“It’s sort of like a coming together of a community that’s always been together. We always have identified as being from either Chester County or Lower Berks or whatever, and we’re finally actually unified,” Houlahan said.
She thinks it might be too early to read into the analysts’ forecasts and says she’s still wary of the “power of incumbency,” expecting an “uphill battle.”
Houlahan declared her candidacy before the lawsuit challenging the old map had even been filed.
But some of the changes under the new map have launched campaigns from scratch in recent weeks.
State Rep. Madeleine Dean went from running for lieutenant governor to seeking the Democratic nomination in the new 4th Congressional District, which is made up mainly of Montgomery County. Before, Montgomery was split among five districts — including one of the most notoriously gerrymandered — but home to none of the representatives.
Some Republicans who consider themselves anti-establishment also believe they have a better shot of winning because they think the new map diminishes the advantage orchestrated by the Republican machine.
Columbia County Republican Andrew Shecktor went from a packed field jockeying to succeed Barletta to one of a few Republican candidates drawn into the 9th, where Quick is running.
Shecktor says his billing as a populist Trump diehard will play just as well here, if not better, than in his old district.
“It’s possibly going to be easier for me, depending on who comes on board from other districts,” said Shecktor, a Berwick Borough councilman. “It’s hard to tell. There’s always the possibility of [other, additional] candidates declaring a campaign in the 9th District now [that] it’s changed.”
Dauphin County Commissioner Mike Pries had planned to run when he lived in a district with an open seat. But Pries quit after being drawn into a new Capitol-region district – the 10th – with fellow Republican Scott Perry, an incumbent in office since 2013.
The 10th encompasses all of Harrisburg, which was previously split, plus the city of York and east Cumberland County including Carlisle, home to Dickinson College. The changes are expected to give Democrats more of an edge compared with the old map.
State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale flirted with a campaign there, but decided against it.
That left Statehouse gadfly Gene Stilp as the Democrat with the most name recognition, mainly among state politics wonks.
Democrat Christina Hartman has also declared her candidacy, despite not living in the district — as well as having years invested in challenging Republican U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, who is seeking a second term.
The new 11th District is expected to be safer for Smucker, adding hundreds of square miles of farmland in southern York and southeastern Lancaster counties. Previously, the district was made up of the rest of Lancaster County and the overwhelmingly Democratic cities of Reading and Coatesville.
Candidates rarely seek office outside their home districts, though they aren’t prevented from doing so by state or federal law.
But this year, Hartman’s not the only one running in a district where she doesn’t live.
Former Revenue Secretary Dan Meuser, a Luzerne County Republican, is doing it, and Pittsburgh Democrat Conor Lamb might, too.
Clinton County Democrat Wade Jodun, who launched his campaign with the intent of ousting Centre County Republican Glenn Thompson, was drawn out of the decade-long incumbent’s district.
“We had a lot of hard-working people from these counties volunteer, make donations, pledge their support, and ask us to remain in the race,” Jodun said. “This isn’t a campaign about me, it’s a grass-roots movement about giving ordinary Americans a voice again and returning this democracy back to the people.”
Still, Jodun finds himself in what’s now considered the state’s reddest district.
“The odds of a Democrat winning this congressional district the way the state Supreme Court justices have had it drawn, it would be 0.26 of 1 percent,” said Thompson.
Some Dems disadvantaged
Jodun and Hartman are just two examples illustrating the fact that the Democratic advantage noted by analysts is far from consistent across the entire map.
Quick is in the same boat.
The interactive slider above compares changes to a few congressional districts on the eastern half of Pennsylvania.
According to her staffers, the Democrat’s new district is older, whiter, poorer and less educated compared with the district where she started her campaign, which included much of the Lehigh Valley and some of the Harrisburg suburbs.
Lebanon, population 20,000, is the new 9th’s biggest city and Democratic cluster. Before, Quick could count on likely party voters in the cities of Allentown — the state’s third-largest with more than 120,000 residents — and Bethlehem, which has 75,000 residents.
Quick expects to have a harder time winning in her new district.
“It’s just so much more heavily Republican. And I don’t have a good sense of it yet. So until I get a better sense, I really feel I’m at a disadvantage,” she said.
One consistency that came up in talking to Republicans and Democrats is that they’ll restart canvassing and seeking signatures close to their hometowns and work out into their new districts from there.
Meanwhile, even for candidates who see their chances as potentially better under the new map, the logistics of living with it have proved challenging.
Bloom, the Republican from Cumberland County, has been rushing to adjust his strategy to get on the ballot to represent a new district where he’d campaigned in just two of its 10 counties.
“I’m scrambling, literally, you know, today, making calls, sending texts, researching, trying to figure out who’s where, and who I can get to help me in these other counties,” Bloom said. “So it’s rather overwhelming, especially logistically. And then, of course, it’s going to be a 10-week sprint to Election Day.”