4 House primaries to watch in Pennsylvania

The Keystone State will set the table for a slate of key elections this fall.

April 22, 2024, 1:36 PM

One of the country's most important battleground states, Pennsylvania, has a primary election on Tuesday. Beyond the presidential race, the Keystone State will host a — ahem — key Senate contest and multiple competitive U.S. House races in November, not to mention elections for offices in the state executive and legislature. Primary voters on Tuesday will determine the nominees for these contests, and the choices they make could influence the competitiveness of general election matchups as well as the future ideological positioning of the parties. The state's most high-profile contested primaries will take place in four U.S. House seats, which will be the main focus of our preview below, but stay tuned for full coverage of all the races during our liveblog on Tuesday night.


Races to watch: U.S. Senate, 1st, 7th, 10th and 12th congressional districts;
attorney general, auditor, treasurer, state legislature
Polls close: 8 p.m. Eastern

Leading off is the Pittsburgh-based 12th District, a solidly blue seat that President Joe Biden would have carried by about 20 percentage points in 2020, according to Daily Kos Elections. In the all-important Democratic primary, progressive Rep. Summer Lee could be vulnerable against Edgewood Borough Council member Bhavini Patel: In her first bid for this seat in 2022, Lee only won the Democratic primary by less than a point. And Patel's challenge has turned into a referendum on Lee's party bona fides. Behind this is Lee's membership in The Squad, a group of progressive House Democrats who've often been at odds with party leaders. Tomorrow's primary will be an early test of whether challenges from the party's center-left against its progressive left flank will find real success this cycle — particularly over the topic of the Israel-Hamas conflict in Gaza.

Lee's critics have often portrayed her as more dogmatic than pragmatic, a theme Patel's campaign has played up, arguing that Lee wants to undermine Biden and the Democratic Party. She has run ads attacking Lee for failing to support the Biden administration, citing a 2022 bridge collapse in Pittsburgh and how Biden's signature 2021 infrastructure law helped quickly fix it. Importantly, Lee wasn't in Congress in 2021, although The Squad at that time voted against the bill. Patel has also criticized Lee's support for the "uncommitted" movement in the Democratic presidential primary that has sought to pressure Biden to adopt a less pro-Israel stance. Meanwhile, Moderate PAC, a super PAC funded largely by a leading Republican donor, has used similar messaging to impugn Lee's party credibility and criticize her for voting against the 2023 debt ceiling deal backed by most Democrats.

The incumbent has defended her record against this onslaught. Her campaign ads have emphasized her ability to "build bridges," claiming that she's brought more than $1 billion to the district in federal spending, as well as her pro-choice record at a time when Democrats are highly focused on protecting abortion rights. Lee's campaign has also criticized "Republican-funded super PACs" for meddling in the race, referencing Patel's backing from Moderate PAC and the potential influence of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which has said it might spend $100 million against progressives this cycle.

Heading into the primary, Lee probably does have the upper hand. We have no polls, but Lee had outraised Patel nearly 4-to-1 ($2.3 million to $602,000) as of April 3. Meanwhile, outside spending has run about even, according to OpenSecrets, with Moderate PAC spending $612,000 to aid Patel and various groups spending $664,000 to boost Lee — some of which are part of a progressive "Reject AIPAC" coalition. Surprisingly, though, AIPAC's super PAC has not spent money against Lee despite investing $3.9 million to stop her in the 2022 primary. That decision may mean that AIPAC thinks Patel can't win, that she already has sufficient outside support and/or that support associated with AIPAC could actually harm Patel more than help her. We'll just have to see.

On the other side of the state, the 7th District in the state's Lehigh Valley is set to be the one of the most competitive House races in the state (and the nation) this fall. In 2022, Democratic Rep. Susan Wild held onto her seat by just 2 points, and Republicans are hoping they can flip it this time around — with such a slim majority in the lower chamber, any seat they're able to grab from the Democrats could make the difference in the GOP maintaining control of the House. Wild is running for reelection to a fourth term in Congress unopposed in the Democratic primary, while three Republicans are battling it out on the GOP side to be on the ballot in November.

Kevin Dellicker, a consulting company owner who was the runner-up in the 2022 GOP primary here, and attorney Maria Montero, the former director of public affairs at the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority in Philadelphia, are squaring off against state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie. Dellicker has outraised his opponents by about double, according to recent FEC filings, bringing in $447,000 to Mackenzie's $272,000 and Montero's $214,000. But Mackenzie has received substantial outside support to the tune of almost half a million dollars from Americans for Prosperity Action, a libertarian super PAC founded by the Koch brothers. There's no polling available for this race and not a ton of daylight between the three candidates when it comes to policy positions on hot-button issues like immigration, abortion and climate change, so it could be anyone's race. However, the heavy spending on Mackenzie's campaign and his local name recognition — he grew up in the region, he has represented it in the state general assembly since 2012 and his mother has also been a local state representative since 2021 — are distinct advantages.

Just to the south in the Bucks County-based 1st District, Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is facing a primary challenge from Mark Houck, an anti-abortion activist and head of a nonprofit ministry group for Catholic men. Fitzpatrick was first elected to Congress in 2016, succeeding his brother (the late former Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick). He's faced a primary challenger in every election since, but has always triumphed. A well-known moderate, Fitzpatrick has distanced himself from the right flank of the GOP: He's got a track record of bipartisanship and moderate policy stances in Congress and refused to endorse Doug Mastriano, the GOP's far-right nominee for governor in 2022 — and even snubbed Trump's visit to Bucks County earlier this month. His position on abortion has been a bit less clear — there's no mention of abortion on his reelection campaign website — though he has drawn ire from abortion rights groups. But he's certainly no culture warrior like Houck, who was charged with assault (but found not guilty) after shoving a 72-year-old clinic volunteer while protesting outside a Planned Parenthood in Philadelphia, and whose organization opposes "same-sex attraction disorders" and pornography, and works to shut down "sexually oriented businesses."

In this district, the GOP most likely wants Fitzpatrick to once again win out over his far-right challenger. Whoever wins the primary will be going up against Democrat Ashley Ehasz, whom Fitzpatrick defeated in 2022 by 10 points, but the area is purple and shows signs of shifting blue — Biden won the district in 2020, and Democrats swept all five seats up for grabs in a recent local school board election. Fitzpatrick is the lone Republican in the districts surrounding Philadelphia, though his is the whitest of those collar counties and the conservative areas of the county are increasingly polarized. That could mean Fitzpatrick faces serious competition from Houck in the party primary, but Houck's far-right leanings could tilt the general election contest toward Democrats if he makes the ballot in November.

Moving west to the Harrisburg-based 10th District in central Pennsylvania, Republican Rep. Scott Perry won reelection by a little less than 8 points in 2022. But he remains a target for Democrats, thanks to the district's potential competitiveness (Trump would've carried it by just 4 points in 2020) and Perry's reputation as an archconservative — he's the former chair of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus. A crowd of six contenders have entered the Democratic primary to earn the right to face Perry in November, and there's some degree of uncertainty about how this primary might play out.

If there's a front-runner, it's probably former news anchor Janelle Stelson, whose long tenure at WGAL in the Harrisburg-Lancaster-Lebanon-York TV market has made her a familiar face in the region. Stelson had raised $577,000 as of April 3, and she has endorsements from EMILY's List, the business-friendly New Democratic Action Fund and a number of labor groups. However, Stelson has competition in retired Marine fighter pilot Mike O'Brien, who has slightly outraised Stelson by bringing in $736,000, his own local labor support and an endorsement from Democrats Serve. The other candidate of note is Harrisburg City Council member Shamaine Daniels, the party's 2022 nominee against Perry, although she's only raised $73,000.

But Stelson and O'Brien both have potential weaknesses that could affect their chances. Each has faced questions about their ties to the district, as Stelson lives just outside it in Lancaster County and O'Brien only recently moved to the area. Stelson also only recently switched her party registration from Republican to Democrat, although she claims this was because her parents were Republicans and she had long worked in a nonpartisan media role. And Daniels has attacked Stelson for having made a racist joke on air around a decade ago about Asians eating cats, saying it signals Stelson doesn't share Democrats' values. Whether that's enough to derail Stelson remains to be seen: The only recent poll we've seen was a late February survey for Stelson's campaign by Normington, Petts & Associates that found her leading with 36 percent, followed by Daniels at 16 percent and O'Brien at 9 percent.

In the Senate race, both Democratic senior Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (a poli-nepo-baby—his dad was governor of Pennsylvania from 1987-1995) and Republican David McCormick are running unopposed in their primaries. McCormick is the former CEO of hedge fund Bridgewater Associates and was the Treasury Department's under secretary for international affairs during the George W. Bush administration. McCormick made an expensive bid for Senate in 2022 but was narrowly defeated (like, recount narrowly) in the GOP primary by TV personality Mehmet Oz, who subsequently lost the general election to now-Sen. John Fetterman. This will be a race to watch come November, but the nominees are already set.

Last but not least, Pennsylvania has elections for downballot offices on the menu as well. In the open-seat race for Attorney General, five Democrats are battling for the party's nomination, while two Republicans are facing off in the GOP primary. The contest for state Auditor features a head-to-head primary on the Democratic side for the right to face Republican incumbent Timothy DeFoor. Similarly, two Democrats are battling in the primary to take on incumbent GOP Treasurer Stacy Garrity, a longtime Trump supporter who has previously cast doubt on Pennsylvania's 2020 election results. Additionally, Pennsylvania will have primaries for the state General Assembly, where both chambers look competitive in the fall. In the state House of Representatives, Democrats hold the slimmest of majorities, 102 seats to the GOP's 100 (with one vacancy in a deep red seat), and all 203 districts are up this November. In the state Senate, Republicans hold a 28-to-22 seat edge, but with half the chamber's seats on the ballot this year, Democrats might have a shot at gaining just enough to force a tie that would be broken by Democratic Lt. Gov. Austin Davis.

CORRECTION (April 22, 2024, 3:00 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated that Rep. Scott Perry currently chairs the House Freedom Caucus. At the beginning of 2024, Virginia Rep. Bob Good succeeded Perry as caucus chair. Additionally, a previous version of this story stated that U.S. House candidate Maria Montero is the current director of public affairs at the Pennsylvania Convention Center Authority. She is the former director.

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