NORRISTOWN, Pa.—Lois Murphy is a Democrat eager to oust a Republican congressman and help her party take back control of the U.S. House of Representatives.
She's been here before. She fell short two years ago, but this time she swears it's different. She might be right.
She's in a good position to oust two-term Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach. It could be an isolated win, or, as Democrats hope, it could be part of a realignment of seats in the suburban Northeast back to the Democrats, who long dominated the region's politics.
There are 435 elections for House seats this fall, but only a few dozen are competitive, and they're almost all in the Northeast and Midwest. Many of them are held by moderate Republicans in places, such as suburban Philadelphia, that went for Democratic presidential candidates Al Gore and John Kerry, as well as local Democrats such as Gov. Ed Rendell.
Now, thanks in part to voters' anger at the war in Iraq and disapproval of President Bush, Democrats have an opportunity in these districts to take advantage of a shift away from the national Republican Party that was already occurring.
"It's a very different environment," Murphy said. "It's a very different mood."
Even before Murphy came along, the suburban districts were growing less enamored of Republican rule in Washington. Prosperous, largely white and white-collar, the suburbs are fiscally conservative and socially liberal.
"The voters in the suburbs here are thoughtful, educated, independent thinkers," said Murphy, a former abortion-rights lawyer. "For a number of years, some Republicans have been drifting away over social issues, religion and state, science and environmental protection. Those issues have been accumulating. ... It's been a trend that was already in place but has accelerated in the last year."
This 6th District of Pennsylvania, while still closely divided, seems to be leaning toward the Democrats. It went for Gore by a razor's edge in 2000 and for Kerry by 51-49 percent in 2004.
Next door, the state's 7th Congressional District went for Gore by 51-47 percent and for Kerry by 53-47. Republican Rep. Curt Weldon won easily there, but he faces a strong challenge now from Democrat Joseph Sestak, a retired vice admiral.
The nearby 8th District went for Gore by 51-46 percent and for Kerry by 51-48. Freshman Republican Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick won easily last time when he stepped in at the last minute to replace a retiring congressman and faced token opposition from a weak Democrat. This time, he has a tough opponent in Patrick Murphy, an Iraq veteran who won a Bronze Star.
All three are close contests, according to independent analysts Stuart Rothenberg of the Rothenberg Political Report, Charles Cook of the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia.
In the 6th District, Gerlach is no right-wing ideologue. He's voted against oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and against banning gay marriage, while voting to ban so-called partial-birth abortion. The National Journal, a respected Washington weekly, in 2004 put him in the middle on social issues and only slightly to the right on economic issues.
Yet Murphy might have the edge over him this time.
At this point two years ago, she trailed Gerlach in her own polling by 19 points and in campaign cash by $300,000. She closed strong, but lost, 51-49 percent.
Now, aides noted, she leads in the same poll by 1 point and has a cash advantage of $100,000 over Gerlach.
Election Day is Nov. 7.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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