Does the sudden departure of Allentown-area Republican Congressman Charlie Dent give Democrats a shot at Pennsylvania's 15th Congressional district?

Maybe, say independent analysts.

Dent's announcement Thursday that he wouldn't seek re-election stunned political observers from Lehigh County to Washington, D.C.  And it jolted Democrats, who'd all but given up trying to beat Dent, a national symbol of moderation and bipartisanship.

The shape of the fight

The boundaries of the 15th Congressional District were adjusted after the last census to make it a safer Republican seat.

But Mark Nevins, a Democratic strategist who gets paid to make cold, hard assessments of what's possible, says the district isn't a lock for the GOP.

It went for Barack Obama in 2008, then for Republicans Mitt Romney and Donald Trump the last two elections — none of those times by a large margin.

Nevins told me he sorted the district's electorate to identify reliable voters in congressional races.
He said there were about 118,000 Republicans in that category, around 107,000 Democrats, and about 26,000 independents — enough uncommitted voters to swing the election either way.

"Republicans have a bit of an edge by the numbers in that district, but this environment is not great for Republicans, and the district is winnable for a Democrat," Nevins said.

I asked what he meant by an environment that's not great for Republicans.

"The current presidential administration has energized Democratic voters and probably depressed some Republican voters," Nevins said. "I'm not talking about die-hard Trump supporters — those folks I think will always be energized. I'm talking about moderate Republicans."

Dent targeted

Dent beat the Democrats handily every election by building a coalition of Republicans, independents and moderate Democrats.

He was sharply critical of Donald Trump during the presidential campaign and since his inauguration; this year, that drew some opposition. Dent faced a challenge in the Republican primary from state Rep. Justin Simmons, an ardent Trump supporter who planned to make Dent the issue in his campaign.

"His voting record increasingly became out of step with the Republican electorate," Simmons said in a phone interview. "Obviously, he saw the writing on the wall that he would lose a primary to me, so I think he made the right decision."

Simmons will face at least one other candidate in the Republican primary. State Rep. Ryan MacKenzie announced his candidacy after Dent bowed out.

Simmons says his new opponent is the "hand-picked candidate" of Dent and establishment Republicans.
A bitter primary battle could make it harder for the Republicans to unite and keep the seat, but a primary would also give the candidates more experience and exposure.

Are Democrats ready?

Independent analysts, including the Cook Political Report, give the Democrats some chance of capturing the seat for the first time in years.

Do they have a candidate? Not yet, said state Democratic Party chairman Marcel Groen, acknowledging they were caught off guard by Dent's sudden departure.

"It kind of came as a shock to most folks," Groen said.

Groen said there were Democrats making plans to run in the district. Now that it's an open seat, he said, others will become interested who have more resources, name recognition, and experience running for office.

"I'm going to sit down with all the county chairs within that congressional district," Groen said. "We'd obviously like to narrow it down to one candidate, a strong one, and we can win that seat."

Groen declined to name any announced or potential Democratic candidates.

Bill Leiner, 57, a former Lehigh County commissioner and one-time mayor of Coplay Borough, announced in August he would seek the Democratic nomination.

Walt Felton, chairman of the Lehigh County Democratic Party, told me that Allentown pastor Gregory Edwards has also declared his interest in the race.

Felton said his phone has been ringing off the hook since Dent withdrew from the race.

Groen said he's confident the race will have a national profile — and attract plenty of money from party donors and outside interest groups.

And before we hung up, he said there was something else he had to say.

"I think Charlie Dent's departure is a shame for the country," he said. "I often disagreed with him, but I respected his moderation and his willingness to look beyond party."

Annette John-Hall contributed to this report.