Tom Curry  /  MSNBC.com
Rep. Jim Gerlach, R-Pa. is facing Democrat Lois Murphy, who he beat in 2004, in this year's House race in Pennsylvania's Sixth District.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 7/5/2006 3:38:52 PM ET 2006-07-05T19:38:52

Why is Republican Rep. Jim Gerlach beginning his television campaign here in Pennsylvania’s Sixth Congressional District with an ad criticizing President Bush on illegal immigration?

Answers: Bush is unpopular and illegal immigration is a hot issue in the district, particularly in the city of Reading, which has a 40 percent Latino population and is partly represented by Gerlach.

What's more, the two-term congressman is in a tight race and eager to show he’s responsive to voters’ concerns.

"Clearly it’s one of the top issues in the district,” Gerlach says, adding that he was surprised by the number of comments from constituents about the "no" vote on the Senate's immigration bill.

Gerlach’s approach — and that of other Republican House candidates — is to be antagonistic and a bit hostile toward illegal immigrants this election season.

Gerlach says he favors creating “more opportunity to come here legally.” Eventually illegal immigrants should have a path to citizenship, but only after they return to their country of origin and get in line behind legal immigrants who await a chance at citizenship, he said. Last December, Gerlach voted for the House's border-strengthening bill.

“Jim Gerlach has no credibility, as far as I’m concerned, on border security,” says his Democratic opponent Lois Murphy. Murphy, who challenged and lost against Gerlach in the 2004 campaign, cites roll call votes where Gerlach came down against increased funding for border security. “Where’s he been for the last three-and-a-half years?”

Murphy avoided saying whether she would have voted for the House bill, but says she supports funds for border security.

Tough race in a Kerry district
Local Republicans admit they’re worried about the November elections: “Unless both parties can stem the tide of people saying, ‘We’re just sick of people in politics. We want somebody else,’ it’s going to be a tough race for Gerlach and for Murphy, but he’s the incumbent,” explained Ronald Stanko, mayor of Wyomissing Borough, which is adjacent to Reading.

Illegal immigration is a hot issue in Wyomissing and in the rest of Gerlach’s district.

“Reading is just full of (immigrant) people who migrated here from New York. They come here for the entitlements,” said Brad Scribner, a Republican member of the Wyomissing Borough Council. “We’re just known as an easy take. You can just sign up for all sorts of programs.”

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But no matter how effective Gerlach’s ads on immigration might be, there’s bipartisan agreement that he faces a tough race.

Even loyal Democrats say that if Murphy can’t beat Gerlach, a conservative Republican in a John Kerry district, then they should forget about regaining the House of Representatives. Kerry carried the Sixth with 52 percent of the vote in 2004.

The map of the Sixth is shaped like a misbegotten reindeer with one antler reaching southeast to Montgomery County’s very affluent, socially liberal town of Ardmore and the other hooking northwest to more rural and conservative Berks County.

“You have Democrats (in Berks County) who are more conservative than Republicans in Montgomery County,” said Stanko. “That’s what throws this whole thing into a curious blender.”

The Republican legislature designed, or gerrymandered, the district after the 2000 Census partly with a Republican in mind, but it has proven to be more Democratic than expected, with a fair number or liberal Republicans in Montgomery County.

Gerlach’s stronghold is Chester County, a booming place where farms are being replaced by rows and rows of houses in developments with names such as “Windsor Ridge” and the “Reserve at Wayne Brook.” (“Priced from the low $500's.”)

In 2004, Gerlach carried the Chester County part of the district with 56 percent. Murphy’s stronghold is Montgomery County, an older suburban bastion, which she carried with 57 percent in 2004.

The swing area is Berks County, which Gerlach won by 4,300 votes in 2004. “As far as we’re concerned, it was Berks County that swung the race because of our margin here,” said Scribner.

Two years ago, Gerlach barely defeated Murphy, by a margin of 6,371 votes, or two percent.

This year he has two weights to carry: one is Bush. According to the Keystone Poll at Franklin & Marshall College, 70 percent of those surveyed in Pennsylvania think Bush is doing a poor or only a fair job as president.

Tom Curry  /  MSNBC.com
Berks County Commission chair Judy Schwank.
“He’s trying to distance himself but I think it’s very hard,” said Berks County Commission chair Judy Schwank, a Democrat.

The other weight for Gerlach is Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who is running for re-election this year and trailing in opinion polls. Santorum alienated people with his comments about women not working outside the home and an interview in which he suggested legalizing same-sex marriages might encourage “man-on-dog” sexual relations.

“You can’t talk to a Republican woman around here that does not take exception to his comments about working women ought to be home,” said Stanko.

If some anti-Santorum voters split their ticket and vote for Gerlach, it might be because he convinces them that Murphy truly is what he calls “far left wing.”

Murphy has served as president of NARAL Pro-Choice Pennsylvania and gets support from an array of labor union political action committees, as well as feminist and abortion-rights groups including Emily’s List, Planned Parenthood and Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold’s PAC.

And Gerlach is right wing, if one goes by the rating systems compiled by conservative groups.

Based on his roll call votes, Gerlach has earned a 67 out of a perfect 100 rating from the American Conservative Union and on the abortion issue, has a rating of 91 out of 100 from the National Right to Life Committee for his votes in 2003-2004 and a rating of 71 for his votes so far in this session of Congress.

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