Allegations of inappropriate conduct against State Sen. Daylin Leach may have delivered an early setback to Democrats' hopes of picking up one of the Philadelphia suburban congressional seats they'll likely need to win control of the House in next year's elections.
But some Democrats and political analysts say Leach, a vocal proponent of medicinal marijuana and other progressive issues, may have been too liberal and bombastic to defeat Republican U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan in Pennsylvania's moderate Seventh Congressional District.
Polling shows that voters across the country, by double-digit margins, currently want Democrats to control Congress. Combined with President Trump's low approval rating and the as-of-now unpopular tax overhaul, Democratic recruiters can make a good case to strong prospective candidates that 2018 is the year to run.
Given the March 6 deadline to submit petitions to appear on the May primary ballot, Democrats still have time to regroup from the Leach allegations. And one of his declared rivals may yet emerge as a more formidable candidate. Leach has said he's "taking a step back" from the campaign.
This much is certain: Meehan is one of 23 Republican incumbents, along with fellow Pennsylvania Rep. Ryan Costello, who represent districts that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016. Democrats need to flip 24 seats to take control of the House.
The head of the House Republicans' campaign arm has identified Costello's seat, in the Sixth District, as a bellwether for the midterm elections.
Democrats have to "pick up something, I think, out of [the] Philadelphia [suburbs] in order to make the math work nationally," said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan newsletter at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "It's unclear what the best target is."
Kondik and other prognosticators list those Pennsylvania races — in the Sixth, Seventh, and Bucks County-based Eighth district — as competitive. New Jersey's Second District on the Shore, where Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo has said he won't seek reelection, is considered a toss-up.
Pennsylvania's Seventh district is peculiar. It includes large swaths of Delaware County, where Democrats enjoy a voter registration edge, but the district historically leans Republican. In the last round of redistricting in 2011, the GOP-controlled Legislature in Harrisburg carved a number of Democratic towns out of the district.
The district has become nationally known for its strange shape, which in some parts is held together by a single building. The state Supreme Court has fast-tracked a lawsuit challenging the state map as an unconstitutional gerrymander; if the suit is successful, it could order lawmakers to redraw districts before May's primary.
Court case aside, Democrats are hoping to build on the momentum they gained in November when they won Delaware County Council seats for the first time and swept row offices.
David Landau, chairman of the Delaware County Democrats, said turning out voters for local elections last month was "the heavy lift."
Party leaders needed to convince voters that the path to success in 2018 — with gubernatorial, Senate, and House races on the ballot — started in 2017. "That was the heavy lift," Landau said. "This is an easy one to people."
Even with an energized base, Democrats say they still need to field strong candidates. Leach was seen as the front-runner for his party's nomination; he had raised the most money (about $400,000) and, as a state senator, had a higher profile than his rivals.
Leach, who was accused by former staffers of inappropriate touching and making sexualized comments, hasn't officially bowed out of the race. But few expect him to continue his campaign, and a few campaign contributors have asked for their money back.
Other declared candidates include Dan Muroff, a lawyer and former president of groups that advocate for the environment and gun-violence prevention, and Molly Sheehan, a bioengineer.
Democrats say they like Muroff's progressive credentials but are concerned that voters would be wary of electing a former Philadelphia ward leader. As of Sept. 30, Muroff had raised about $300,000 — more than Sheehan, though they had about the same amount left in the bank, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Muroff unsuccessfully ran in the 2016 Democratic primary in the Second District against incumbent Chaka Fattah, who was under indictment, and eventual winner Dwight Evans.
Meehan, a former U.S. attorney, has represented the Seventh District since 2010 and won in 2016 by 19 percentage points even as Clinton carried the district. But this will be his first race when a member of his own party occupies the White House. And a president's first midterm is often a national referendum that costs his party seats.
Meehan and every other Republican from Pennsylvania voted last week for the tax bill.