As if the disclosure that GOP Rep. Pat Meehan (PA-07) used taxpayer dollars to settle a harassment claim wasn't bad enough, Meehan's actions since might be a lesson in how not to handle a crisis. In the past few days, the married father of three compounded his problems by admitting to local news outlets he saw his much younger aide as a "soul mate" and released a letter he wrote to her last May thanking "God for putting you into my life."
Meehan maintains that his actions weren't illegal and has indicated he will continue to seek reelection, but Speaker Paul Ryan has removed him from the House Ethics Committee amid an investigation, and according to two sources, senior Republicans are pressuring Meehan to retire before the March 6 filing deadline. Whether or not Meehan heeds that advice, the scandal plunges yet another Republican-leaning seat into serious doubt.
Pennsylvania's "Bullwinkle"-shaped 7th CD is among the most gerrymandered districts in the country, specifically designed by GOP state legislators in 2011 to protect Meehan. It narrowly voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, 49 percent to 47 percent. Nonetheless, Meehan's moderate voting record and law-and-order reputation as a former Delaware County prosecutor have made him a tough target for Democrats. In 2016, he took 60 percent of the vote.
The Meehan bombshell ensures that the GOP will either field a beleaguered incumbent or no incumbent in a swing seat in what's shaping up to be a Democratic wave. That alone would be enough to move the race to Toss Up.
However, Republicans' grip on the 7th CD suffered a second blow on Monday when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down the state's GOP-drawn map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander. If the Supreme Court doesn't intervene, the state legislature and governor will have until February 15 to agree on a new map. If the 7th CD were reconfigured more logically around Delaware County, it could turn into a safe Democratic seat.
There's talk among some Republicans that they could solve several problems at once by "sacrificing" Meehan and turning his district into a safe Democratic seat, using the 7th CD's heavily GOP precincts to shore up the nearby suburban seats of GOP Reps. Ryan Costello (PA-06) and Lloyd Smucker (PA-16) in the process. But it's not clear Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf or the state supreme court would accept that trade.
If the 7th CD remains at all winnable for the GOP after the redistricting dust settles, Republicans' only glimmer of hope may be that the Democratic field here is a mess too.
In December, Democrats' best-funded candidate, state Sen. Daylin Leach, was caught in his own mini-scandal when the Philadelphia Inquirer reported allegations that he had inappropriately touched campaign aides and engaged in crude sexual talk around the office. Leach, who bills himself as a progressive warrior in Harrisburg, was probably never Democrats' ideal candidate for the swing 7th CD. He's paused his campaign, but hasn't formally withdrawn.
To fill the void, Democrats have recruited attorney and CIA officer Shelly Chauncey, who entered the race on Monday. A former undercover operative in Latin America, Chauncey has a potentially appealing profile, but she's also a first-time candidate getting a very late start.
The primary is in May, and five other Democrats are running, including two other women. The field includes attorney/former congressional aide Dan Muroff ($220,000 in the bank as of last September), biomedical scientist Molly Sheehan ($181,000) and real estate broker Elizabeth Moro. It's expensive to build name ID quickly in the Philadelphia market, and in 2016, national Democrats' preferred candidate lost the primary by a massive 48 points.
If the 7th CD is redrawn as a much more Democratic seat, the identity of Democrats' nominee may not matter. But even if the current lines were to remain in place in 2018, Meehan's self-inflicted wounds put the GOP in deep danger of losing the seat. For now, the race moves from the Lean Republican column to the Toss Up column, but it's possible new developments could push the race even further in Democrats' direction.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite