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Which Pa. and N.J. House, Senate races will make the difference in the fight for Congress?

Which races in Pennsylvania and New Jersey are likely to make the difference in the fight for the U.S. House and Senate? With just five weeks to go until the midterm elections, we break down the key races in the Philadelphia region.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey are home to some of the most critical House and Senate races in the country in the 2018 midterm elections. Top row, from left: Democratic House candidates Scott Wallace (PA1), Andy Kim (NJ3) and Susan Wild (PA7). Middle row from left: Republicans U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA1), U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur (NJ3) and Marty Nothstein (PA7). Bottom row: U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania (left), and the state's Democratic incumbent, Sen. Bob Casey.
Pennsylvania and New Jersey are home to some of the most critical House and Senate races in the country in the 2018 midterm elections. Top row, from left: Democratic House candidates Scott Wallace (PA1), Andy Kim (NJ3) and Susan Wild (PA7). Middle row from left: Republicans U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (PA1), U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur (NJ3) and Marty Nothstein (PA7). Bottom row: U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania (left), and the state's Democratic incumbent, Sen. Bob Casey.Read moreStaff and wire photos

WASHINGTON — We're now just over four weeks from midterm elections in which voters are showing historic levels of interest — the highest in more than two decades, according to the Pew Research Center — and much of the outcome hinges on Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Which races in the Philadelphia region could make the difference in the fight for control of Congress? Here we update our August rankings of the most competitive contests in the area and a little beyond based on conversations with independent analysts, pollsters, and officials in both parties, along with reviews of polls and forecasting sites.

Democrats, needing to add 23 seats to gain a House majority, are targeting six Republican-held districts in Southeast Pennsylvania and South Jersey, and an additional five or so could come into play in the Keystone and Garden States under their dream scenario.

Both states also host Senate races as the GOP tries to hold or expand its 51-49 advantage.

>> VOTERS GUIDE: View candidates in the 2018 midterm election based on your address, or browse all the action in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware

We've rated the key races from one to five based on a combination of importance and competitiveness. This is a snapshot, likely to shift as the campaigns continue.

Top Tier

PA1: Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is probably the most strongly positioned Republican in the Philadelphia region — but forecasters still say he has a major fight on his hands.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report just last week changed his race status to a "toss-up" Wednesday, after previously rating it as a "lean Republican" contest.

Most years Fitzpatrick would be a safe bet in this evenly balanced district, where he has built an independent profile and his brother served four terms. His Democratic challenger, Scott Wallace, has taken some political hits as the GOP has dug into his charitable giving and he hasn't distinguished himself as a candidate.

But he has lots of money to spend, and in a district this closely divided, a Democratic suburban surge in November might put him over the top.

Both parties expect this one to go the distance.
Rating: 5 Stars (Unchanged)

PA7: Pennsylvania Republicans have grown deeply pessimistic about this race, with several raising concerns about how their nominee, Marty Nothstein, is running his campaign. In another almost evenly balanced district, where they lack an incumbent and in an atmosphere where Democrats seem to have momentum, some are close to writing this seat off, and the national GOP has been noncommittal.

Two key aides left the Nothstein campaign in August and a New York Times poll showed Democrat Susan Wild with a substantial lead. (The incumbent, Republican Charlie Dent, has retired.)

But an earlier Monmouth University poll showed a close race, and some Democrats have raised concerns that Wild has not generated the same enthusiasm as Democrats elsewhere.

Unlike many of their pickup opportunities in suburban areas, this district has a concentration of Democratic voters in a city, Allentown, with a sizable Hispanic population. Some polls have suggested Hispanic voters are less motivated to turn out than Democrats might expect.

Despite the GOP concerns, it seems too early to write off such a closely divided district.
Rating: 4 Stars (Down from 5)

NJ3: This is likely to be the toughest race in New Jersey, one where an August poll found a virtual tie between Rep. Tom MacArthur, a Republican, and Democratic challenger Andy Kim.

A New York Times/Siena College poll last week gave Kim a 10 percentage-point lead — though that survey looks like an outlier right now; not even the most optimistic Democrat we've come across has been that confident.

Unlike Fitzpatrick, who has kept President Trump at arm's length, MacArthur embraced his two top legislative priorities, his health-care overhaul and tax bill, personally cutting a deal to revive the health bill in the House. Those votes have fired up suburban critics, who fear a federal tax hike from a new cap on their deduction for state and local taxes, and warn that the MacArthur health plan would undermine protections for people with preexisting conditions. Ads on taxes have dominated the airwaves.

The GOP has hit back by trying to disqualify Kim, attacking his honesty, accusing him of inflating his national security work, and painting him as an outsider.

Of all the districts in the Philadelphia suburbs, Trump performed strongest here, winning it by six. Despite the poll, expect this race to go to the wire.
Rating: 5 stars (Unchanged)

PA17: Republicans waved a virtual white flag here, when the GOP's national congressional campaign arm canceled its ad buys for this race outside Pittsburgh.

The Democrat, Rep. Conor Lamb, has a major advantage in name ID and momentum, thanks to his nationally watched special-election victory in March. He appears to have a substantial lead over Republican Rep. Keith Rothfus. The two incumbents are paired off because of a new Pennsylvania congressional map, drawn by the state Supreme Court, which made this district much more balanced than Rothfus' old, strongly conservative, turf.

Given that the district still leans right, the race isn't totally off the radar, but it's moving in that direction.
Rating: 3 stars (Down from 4)

Second Tier

PA Senate: Don't ask us about this race: Ask Mitch McConnell.

In September when the Republican Senate leader and consummate tactician listed off the nine key races that will decide control of the Senate. Pennsylvania wasn't among them.

Polls suggest that Democratic Sen. Bob Casey has a double-digit lead over Republican Rep. Lou Barletta, and neither national party seems to see much of a contest, despite Trump winning the state two years ago. The GOP has several better opportunities in more solidly conservative states elsewhere.

Still, President Trump and former President Barack Obama have both visited for this race, so it's not totally out of the picture.

Trump, as ever, presents a wild card. He likes Barletta, who was an early endorser, and, perhaps even more important from the White House perspective, Trump cherishes his Keystone State win in 2016 and can ill afford to slip in a place he won by 44,000 votes. So it wouldn't be shocking if he decided to make the short trip from D.C. for more rallies, which means the race remains one to at least keep an eye on.
Rating: 2 stars (Down from 2.5)

NJ Senate: For months allies of Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez have argued that once they unleash the full force of their campaign, this race would start looking better for the wounded incumbent.

But as of late August polls were still showing an unusually close contest in a state that hasn't elected a Republican to the Senate since 1972, and Democrats acknowledge that it's not going to be easy this time around.

Republican challenger Bob Hugin, a former pharma CEO, is pouring money onto the airwaves to remind voters of the corruption charges Menendez faced. His trial ended with a hung jury earlier this year, but he was severely admonished by his Senate colleagues.

Menendez's team plans to hit back by accusing Hugin of jacking up drug prices and tying him to Trump. Democrats are banking on voters in a blue state ultimately deciding that whatever reservations they have about Menendez, they can't hand the GOP a crucial Senate seat.

A Stockton University poll released Monday found Menendez leading Hugin by just 2 percentage points, within the margin of error, though a Quinnipiac University survey days later gave him an 11-point edge.
Rating: 3.5 stars (Up from 2.5)

Sleeper Races

PA10: If a true Democratic tide emerges, this might be one of the first places it shows up. Republican incumbent Scott Perry has never had a close race, but his district is more politically balanced — and much more moderate — under Pennsylvania's new congressional map. Some Republicans have questioned whether he has taken the threat seriously enough.

Perry's staunchly conservative voting record is probably to the right of the district as a whole, and he's facing a challenge from George Scott, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who is now a pastor.

Perry is still favored, but national groups on both sides have begun spending on the race, a sign they see it as competitive.
Rating: 3 stars (Up from 2)

PA16: Democrats will need help from a wave to win here, too, but members of both parties said it is starting to shape up as a potentially tough contest. National Democrats have even begun spending money on it — the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ran its first ads in Pennsylvania here — a sign that they see a potential opening. But in a district Trump won by 20, Republican Mike Kelly is still favored.

Still, Democrats hope to position challenger Ron DiNicola to take advantage if an opportunity emerges.
Rating: 2.5 stars (Up from 1)

PA8: Republicans see a district that swung strongly to Trump in 2016 and argue that the Democratic congressman, Matt Cartwright, might be vulnerable. Democrats see an incumbent who survived the political shock two years ago, and is now running in a much better environment for his party.

If the GOP hopes to gain any ground, this white, working-class district will be one place it  looks. Republican John Chrin had lent $905,000 to his campaign as of June 30, giving him some financial firepower.
Rating: 1 star (No change)

Likely Flips

These races appear unlikely to be competitive but are still significant in the national picture, because Democrats are heavily favored to capture GOP-held seats in all three contests.

PA5: Given the change in the district lines, this might be the easiest pickup opportunity Democrats have in the entire country. In a now-solidly Democratic district, Mary Gay Scanlon is heavily favored over Republican Pearl Kim, who the local GOP thinks has a bright future but not much chance in this contest.
Rating: ½ star (No change)

PA6: Republicans have all but given up on holding this seat, currently held by Republican Ryan Costello, who is retiring. Democrat Chrissy Houlahan is strongly favored over Republican  Greg McCauley.
Rating: ½ star (No change)

NJ2: Democrats have dreamed of winning this South Jersey seat for years, and have their chance now that the Republican incumbent, Frank LoBiondo, decided to retire.

Democratic State Sen. Jeff Van Drew has a long history of winning races in the district, and the national GOP has withdrawn its support for the Republican candidate, Seth Grossman, over racially charged comments.
Rating: 0 stars (No change).

Around the Region

Democrats are hoping for big gains in New Jersey. After the LoBiondo seat in South Jersey, their next two best opportunities are in the 11th District in North Jersey, where incumbent Rodney Frelinghuysen is retiring, and in a central Jersey district, the Seventh, that abuts Pennsylvania and is home to one of the president's golf clubs. Both are the kind of moderate, affluent districts that typically vote Republican but shifted away from the GOP in 2016. Republican Leonard Lance is trying to hang on in the Seventh against Democrat Tom Malinowski. It's Democrat Mikie Sherrill against Republican Assemblyman Jay Webber in the 11th.

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