On Thursday evening, GOP Rep. Pat Meehan announced he would not seek re-election in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal. It’s a dramatic end for someone who had enjoyed a long and prominent career in local and national politics, but one that he very much brought upon himself.
We’ll start with a look at the battle for Meehan’s House seat, where the GOP has quite the headache on their hands. The current version of Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District, located in the Philadelphia suburbs, narrowly backed Mitt Romney in 2012 before flipping to narrowly back Hillary Clinton in 2016, and it’ll be tough for Republicans to defend as an open seat in what’s shaping up to be a very difficult political environment.
But to complicate things further, the state Supreme Court struck down the state’s Republican-drawn congressional map on Monday as an unlawful partisan gerrymander. And indeed, this inkblot of a district, likened to “Goofy kicking Donald Duck,” is the most emblematic example of just how badly the GOP tortured the lines to produce the outcome they wanted. Unless Republicans succeed with their long-shot bid to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to keep the current map in place, whatever district replaces the current 7th is likely to be more Democratic.
However, while we can make an educated guess, no one can say for sure what the new district will look like, nor how blue it will be. It’s also not certain who will be crafting the new boundaries. The GOP-controlled legislature has until Feb. 15 to pass a new map, but Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has pledged to veto anything he views as a gerrymander. If a stalemate comes to pass, the court will draw up its own seats. For now, we have what we’ve coined a Schrödinger’s seat, where candidates are considering running for a district that may not—in this case, almost certainly will not—exist by Election Day.
And it’s a particularly sticky situation for national Republicans, who still want to find a credible candidate rather than just cede a seat. An unnamed local GOP operative told Roll Call’s Bridget Bowman that the party wants to recruit “a woman with a prosecutorial background,” though this source didn’t offer up any names that might match the description of this unicorn candidate. A different Republican name-dropped state Sen. Tom McGarrigle, former Delaware County Council Chairman Mario Civera, and state Reps. Alex Charlton and Nick Miccarelli as potential candidates, but there’s no word on how interested any of them are.
Meanwhile, a few Democrats had been running before Meehan’s collapse, but others may now be interested. Indeed, state Rep. Greg Vitali filed with the FEC on Friday, though he has not said anything publicly. Vitali has been in the legislature since 1993, but he doesn’t seem to have a good relationship with the party leadership. Last year, Vitali said he very much wanted to be the top Democrat on the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, which he called “my focus since I came up here.” State House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, however, picked someone else, and while Dermody’s team said they just felt Vitali would be a bigger asset on a different committee, Vitali insisted he may have paid a price for “being outspoken.”
Given the uncertainty over redistricting, we wouldn’t be surprised if the field evolved somewhat slowly, but we’re certainly surprised to find ourselves here. Just a few weeks ago, the GOP would have welcomed someone as prominent as Meehan running in a challenging race to keep a swingy seat like this one red. Meehan was the district attorney for populous Delaware County before George W. Bush chose him to serve as the U.S. attorney for the Philadelphia area in 2001. With his prosecutorial background, Meehan ultimately sought a promotion to the governorship, and he spent much of 2009 in furtherance of that quest, though he had a tough time gaining traction against then-state Attorney General Tom Corbett, who ultimately won the GOP primary (and the general election).
The GOP was therefore delighted when Meehan did an about-face and announced he would run for an open House seat in Delaware County that the Republicans had lost in the 2006 wave, and he won the general election 55-44. Republicans then redrew the seat the next cycle, and Meehan decisively won re-election three times against little-known Democrats. Indeed, on the strength of his electoral track record, Republicans wanted Meehan to challenge Democratic Sen. Bob Casey this year, but he passed and said he’d seek re-election.
Despite being gerrymandered halfway unto death, the demographics of the 7th District still gave Democrats an opening against Meehan, but his strong war-chest and moderate reputation made him a very tough opponent … that is, until everything changed when the New York Times reported that he had used thousands in taxpayer dollars to settle a misconduct complaint leveled against him by a former staffer. This staffer, whose name was withheld by the paper, said that the congressman created a hostile work environment for her when he became romantically interested in her and “jealous” when he found out she was dating someone else.
Meehan’s painfully clueless attempts at damage control made things even worse for him, especially when he said he believed the aide was his “soul mate.” But while he was initially defiant and said he planned to seek a fifth term, party insiders managed to pressure the guy who had looked like one of their strongest incumbents just days earlier into getting lost. Meehan finally got the message, but not without one more icky moment.
In his retirement letter, the congressman insisted that to him, the term “soul mate” had no romantic connotation and was instead “a uniquely close person who is joined with you on a daily basis, in which you both share the routine successes and strains of a work day.” He further denied any feelings of jealously, while throwing in the ultimate passive-aggressive jab, writing that when he found out his former aide “was planning to move abroad and marry someone she had only known for a short while, I knew it would mean the termination of the long professional relationship we shared.” If only he would be the one to move abroad. In any case, good riddance.