By PETER JACKSON
HARRISBURG - This year's campaigns for Pennsylvania's 18 seats in the U.S. House may be largely overshadowed by the high-voltage gubernatorial race, but the congressional contests are clearly heating up.
Republicans are eager to maintain or build upon their 13-seat majority, while Democrats are equally determined to shift the balance in their favor - closer to the 12-seat majority that they had won only six years ago.
"We believe we're in a very strong position this year to retain our congressional delegation and gain seats in the House," said state GOP spokeswoman Megan Sweeney. "Every Democrat who supported Obamacare should be worried about being responsible for their vote."
Elena Cross, executive director of the state Democratic Party, said voter disenchantment with Republican Gov. Tom Corbett would bolster the Democratic candidates. Independent polls show Corbett's popularity remains low, even among members of his own party.
"At the end of the day it's really about Tom Corbett," she said. "That's not anything you want to deal with if you're a Republican candidate."
Several congressional primary contests have surfaced, mostly in southeastern Pennsylvania, and additional candidates could jump in before the March 11 filing deadline for the May 20 primary ballot. But one political observer said incumbents who seek additional two-year terms are likely to be re-elected.
"I do not see a single incumbent losing" in either the primary or the Nov. 4 general election, said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
Only two seats are up for grabs - in the 13th District, where Democratic Rep. Allyson Schwartz is running for governor and not seeking re-election, and in the 6th District, where GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach plans to retire when his term ends in January.
Schwartz's exit has drawn an unusually competitive field of Democratic contenders in her solidly Democratic district, which takes in parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties.
The candidates include Marjorie Margolies, who served one term in Congress in the '90s and is Chelsea Clinton's mother-in-law, state Sen. Daylin Leach, state Rep. Brendan Boyle and Dr. Valerie Arkoosh. No Republican candidate has surfaced so far.
Both parties are closely watching developments in two other Philadelphia-area districts.
In Gerlach's district, which includes parts of four counties outside of Philadelphia, Phoenixville lawyer Ryan Costello, a Chester County commissioner, appeared to be unopposed for the Republican nomination. On the Democratic side, former Republican Mike Parrish, a Chester County businessman with a military background, is unopposed so far, although Dr. Manan Trivedi - a physician who ran for the seat in 2010 and 2012 - has said he may run.
In the 8th District, which takes in Bucks County and part of Montgomery County, GOP Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick faces no intraparty opposition in the primary. But Army veteran Kevin Strouse and small business owner Shaughnessy Naughton are vying for the Democratic nod.
In southwestern Pennsylvania's 9th District, Rep. Bill Shuster faces a challenge for the Republican nomination from Art Halvorson, a retired Coast Guard captain who says Shuster is not conservative enough for the job.
Jackson is the Capitol correspondent for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He may be reached at email@example.com.