By Jim EllisMarch 5, 2019 — On Saturday, during a seven-hour marathon special district convention marked with controversy, the central Pennsylvania Republican delegates chose state Rep. Fred Keller (R-Mifflinburg) as the party nominee for 12th District Congressman Tom Marino’s (R-Williamsport) vacated seat. Marino resigned from the House at the end of January due to professional and health reasons.
Gov. Tom Wolf (D) scheduled the replacement special election for May 21. Under Pennsylvania election law, the various political parties call a district convention or meeting for purposes of choosing a special election nominee. Originally, 24 potential Republican candidates expressed interest in running, but only 14 were successful in having their names placed into nomination before the 200-plus assembled delegates.
After Rep. Marino’s unexpected announcement, Democrats responded quickly and re-nominated their 2018 candidate, local college professor Marc Friedenberg, who advances into the special general election hoping to perform better than he did against Marino. In November, Friedenberg lost 66-34 percent while spending just over $90,000 on his federal campaign.
Saturday’s convention became controversial once the Club for Growth organization began sending mailers to the delegates attacking state Rep. Jeff Wheeland (R-Williamsport), over his record on tax issues as a legislator first elected in 2014. Prior to gathering in Williamsport, Wheeland appeared as the candidate most likely to become the delegates’ choice.
But, the convention was rocked when the representative’s stepson distributed a letter detailing how Wheeland abused he and his mother. The combination attack was enough to drive Wheeland from the race just before the fourth ballot, yielding the victory for Keller.
The new nominee wasted little time framing the special general, launching a blistering attack on Friedenberg after his victory was clinched. Saying, “the campaign begins now,” Keller immediately began drawing a clear ideological contrast between he and Friedenberg.
Keller said that “Friedenberg is out of touch in wanting to align himself with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and socialists like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).”
He also went on to attack the Green New Deal that Ocasio-Cortez has sponsored. “It’s estimated to cost $93 trillion in new taxes, which means the cost of $600,000 to Pennsylvanian families.”
The 12th District begins just west of Harrisburg in the Carlisle area, and then travels in a north/northeasterly direction to encompass 13 whole counties and parts of two others: Centre and Northumberland. In all, the CD stretches from the outskirts of Harrisburg all the way to the New York border.
PA-12 supported President Trump with a 66-30 percent margin. This is slightly better than Mitt Romney’s performance here in 2012 (defeating President Obama, 61-37 percent), and John McCain’s 57-42 percent margin in ‘08, also against Obama. Therefore, Keller begins this special general cycle as the clear favorite.
In addition to this district, two other vacant House seats, both in North Carolina (NC-3; NC-9), are also headed to special elections. As is the case in PA-12, the pair of Tar Heel State seats are also Republican-held, meaning the minority GOP is playing defense in all of the 2019 special election contests to date.