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Gerlach: New GOP leaders must 'get' competitive districts

WASHINGTON – Pennsylvania's 13 House Republicans met for around 90 minutes Tuesday night as they tried to put their stamp on the hottest (if quintessentially inside the beltway) political story of the moment in Washington – the GOP's internal race to reshape their leadership team following the primary loss by Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

The campaign, while hardly the kind of issue at the forefront for the average voter, will determine the face of Republican leadership in the House and has once again highlighted the push-and-pull between so-called "red state Republicans" – who come from conservative strongholds and want to advocate more staunchly conservative views – and those from places like the Philadelphia suburbs, where centrists have argued for more compromise.

"For me, the biggest criteria is having a leadership team that understands the members that come from very, very tough districts," said U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach, of Chester County. He is one of several Republicans from the Philadelphia suburbs who have been part of a dwindling group of centrists.

"There's a lot of members in our conference that are R-plus-25, or R-plus-20. They're in a demonstrably different situation than members who are in a D-plus-1 or D-plus-2 or an R-plus-1 district," Gerlach said – referring to the political ratings showing how far a district leans toward Republicans or Democrats.

"So it's absolutely critical that we have a leadership team that gets the members, that really make the majority and those are the members from the really competitive districts," he said.

With all of the current GOP leaders hailing from moderate to liberal states that President Obama won --  Ohio (Speaker John Boehner), Virginia (Cantor) and California (Whip Kevin McCarthy) – some more conservative Republicans have urged colleagues to add a red state voice to the mix.

But those Republicans from competitive states might better match the Republicans from the Philadelphia suburbs, who represent moderate districts in a state that went strongly for Obama in 2012. Gerlach, Bucks' Mike Fitzpatrick, DelCo's Pat Meehan and Allentown's Charlie Dent all fit that profile, and all have been rated as among the most centrist lawmakers in Congress, according to National Journal.

But Pennsylvania's Republican delegation runs the gamut. In other parts of the state are staunch conservatives, such as York County's Scott Perry.

"We have different districts, obviously, but we get along really well together," Gerlach said.

With the fourth largest Republican delegation – after only Texas, Florida and California – the Pennsylvania Republicans had hoped to exert their influence on races for majority leader (the second ranking post in the House) and majority whip. They had never before voted as a bloc.

But they were unable to come to a unified position on the most competitive leadership race, for majority whip (the third ranking post). U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts, of Chester County, told Politico that the delegation was split. Others who left the roughly 90-minute meeting said no decision had been made in that contest.

The meeting - hosted by Pitts, the dean of the GOP delegation -- included presentations from three candidates.

Gerlach said the delegation would "overwhelmingly" support McCarthy in his bid to become majority leader (which is unsurprising – McCarthy is the heavy favorite to win the race Thursday over Idaho's Raul Labrador).

While the race is the subject of intense scrutiny in the Capitol, it's not at all clear that it will have any immediate impact on policy -- in large part because no major bills are making progress right now and no significant legislation expected to be able to clear both the GOP-controlled House and Democratic-led Senate before Election Day.

Put more succinctly: Congress is on autopilot, and has been for some weeks now, having already slipped into the sleepy rhythms of summer.

That leaves the race more focused on personal relationships than ideology, according to two GOP House aides. Illinois' Pete Roskam – a blue-state Republican who represents the Chicago suburbs – would seem to be the whip candidate most similar to the likes of Meehan, Fitzpatrick and Gerlach, who all represent moderate suburbs around Philadelphia.

But he faces competition from Steve Saclise, a leading conservative voice from Louisiana, and Indiana's Marlin Stutzman.

"We believe we've got good strong candidates in these positions, and I think we're going to be able to work together with whomever emerges," Meehan said.

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