ALLENTOWN, PA - Voter turnout is reportedly higher than normal, shocking polls workers across the Lehigh Valley area who were not expecting much interest in races for key positions like senator in Washington, D.C., and governor in Harrisburg.
In Allentown's mostly Democratic 7th Ward, Gus Kruz, the judge of elections, was seeing high interest in voting already a few minutes after polls opened at 7 a.m. Although not a large district, a dozen people had already voted in the 7th Ward by 7:15 a.m. At that point, Kruz couldn't predict if more Democrats would come out than Republicans.
The same was true in Bethlehem's 15th ward, 2nd district at the Education Center on Sycamore St. There' Craig Hynes, judge of elections, said he's seen crisp turnout. By 7:45 a.m., 66 voters had cast ballots despite mechanical problems with two of three machines, including one that had to be placed prior to the polls opening.
"For a nonpresidential election we are running above normal for this time of day," Hynes said.
Bob Cohen, 71, of Bethlehem agreed after casting his ballot at the Education Center. He's Democratic poll watcher who said he hopes President Obama's recent swings across the country will energize his party to prevent a Republican sweep.
"I just think in the last few weeks the people who voted for Obama in '08 are realizing this is a referendum about Obama," Cohen said. "I think Democrats are not going to do as badly as predicted."
As of 8:55 a.m. at the Pocono Family YMCA in Stroudsburg, 52 people had voted and election workers said that was a good turnout.
In the race for U.S. Senate, Republican Pat Toomey, a former congressman from the Lehigh Valley, faces Democrat Joe Sestak, the current congressman for the Delaware County-based 7th District.
Toomey has led Sestak in the polls for most of the election cycle that has seemed to go on for more than a year. The two men are vying for the seat that will be vacated at year's end by long-serving U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa. Sestak defeated Specter in the May primary after Specter switched his registration from Republican to Democrat to avoid a rematch with Toomey, who narrowly lost the GOP Senate nomination in 2004.
This year's fight between Toomey and Sestak is one of the most closely watched races in the country. Money from the political wings of national Republicans and Democrats flowed into the race, as did cash from such third-party groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
After leading in the polls for months, Sestak briefly retook the lead in late October. But by month's end, the race was within the margin of error, with Toomey leading in the last Morning Call/Muhlenberg College tracking poll on Monday.
Eric Ramirez, 36 of Allentown, says he's been voting faithfully since 2000. Although a Democrat, Ramirez says he's undecided on who to vote for in the Sestak/Toomey race.
"I'm a Democrat, but I don't look at it that way," Ramirez says. "If the candidate has good things to bring to the table, I have to make a good decision because I can only vote once. I don't care if the person's a Democrat or Republican, just stop playing politics and do the job for the people."
Voters will also be asked to make choices in several elections for the U.S. House.
In the Lehigh Valley, voters will choose between Republican incumbent Charlie Dent, who has represented the 15th Congressional District since 2004. He's being challenged by Democrat John Callahan, the current mayor of Bethlehem, and independent Jake Towne, an engineer from Nazareth.
"This (Allentown's 7th Ward) is a weird district as far as trends, but the governor's race is definitely key and so is the Senate race between Sestak and Toomey," Kruz said.
In Bucks County's 8th Congressional District, incumbent Democrat Patrick Murphy has a rematch with Republican Mike Fitzpatrick, whom Murphy defeated in 2006 in that year's run of Democratic congressional victories.
In the 11th Congressional District in northeastern Pennsylvania, Republican Lou Barletta, the current mayor of Hazleton, will try for the third time to unseat Democratic incumbent Paul E. Kanjorski. And in the nearby 10th Congressional District, Democrat Chris Carney, another member of the class of 2006, faces a challenge from Republican Tom Marino, a former U.S. attorney.
Most political observers expect Republicans to eat away at the Democrats' majority in the U.S. House or capture control outright. All three of those Pennsylvania races will play a significant role in helping to determine the balance of power.
All 203 seats in the state House and half the 50-member Senate are also up for re-election.
Republicans are hoping to upend the Democrats' 104-98 majority and retake control of the chamber for the first time since 2006. The GOP needs a net gain of three seats to regain control and several seats in the Lehigh Valley area: the 131st District in Lehigh County; the 137th District in Northampton County and the 122nd District in Carbon County, could help determine the balance of power. Republicans and Democrats have also been contesting several seats in the Philadelphia suburbs that were Republican for years before tipping to the Democrats in 2006 and 2008.
In the Lehigh Valley area, Republican Sen. Pat Browne of Allentown faces a challenge from Democrat Rick Orloski; Democratic Sen. Lisa Boscola of Bethlehem Township faces Matt Connolly of Bethlehem in the 18th District: and in the 24th District, which includes Easton, Republican Sen. Bob Mensch faces Democrat Bill Wallace.
In the race for governor, it's an all-western Pennsylvania contest between Republican Tom Corbett, the two-term state attorney general from Shaler Township, Allegheny County, and Democrat Dan Onorato, the elected county executive of Allegheny County, who hails from Pittsburgh's North Side.
The state's still faltering economy and more than 9 percent unemployment rate is the race's key issue, with both men promising to cut business taxes and constrain state spending. Corbett has gone a step further, signing a pledge sponsored by the conservative Americans for Tax Reform, promising not to sign any major tax increases if elected. The pledge, however, has been criticized for being riddled with loopholes that could allow Corbett to pass some fee increases without breaking his promise.
Onorato, meanwhile, has touted his experience running the state's second largest county and his two decades of service in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County government. While he successfully has kept a lid on property tax increases, he has come under fire for an unpopular 7 percent tax on poured drinks that's used to fund the county's mass-transit system.