Crowded Pennsylvania Field Creates Confusion

Posted April 1, 2008 at 6:23pm

It’s a numbers game in Pennsylvania’s Republican-leaning 5th district, where Rep. John Peterson (R) suddenly announced his retirement in late January and left a wide-open race for his would-be successors.

Twelve candidates, 17 counties, three months and the $1.2 million in personal funds that one candidate has put into his coffers make it difficult for a frontrunner to emerge from the pack. The timing and crowded field have been problematic for Republicans, according to Pennsylvania GOP Northwest Caucus Chairman Ash Khare.

“The situation is so bad because of the short time period, this big sprawling district size and the number of candidates,” he said.

And because there was no heir-apparent ready to run for the seat and Peterson has yet to endorse anybody, the field has not really shaken out.

“This is a pretty strange thing,” Khare said. “It’s an important race and a very strange situation because of lack of time, lack of money and it’s a safe GOP district.”

Yet some political observers see the candidates as falling into two tiers.

The first rung includes businessman Derek Walker, hotel developer Matt Shaner, businessman Jeff Stroehmann and, teetering on the edge, minister Keith Richardson. All of these candidates have met with the National Republican Congressional Committee and, with the exception of Richardson, have put at least six figures of their own funds into their campaign coffers.

The second tier includes the rest of the GOP field: former Centre County Commissioner Chris Exarchos, former Pine Creek Township Supervisor John Krupa, Elk County Coroner Lou Radkowski, businessman Richard Schall, Clarion Mayor John Stroup and Centre County GOP Chairman G.T. Thompson.

And despite the district’s heavy GOP bent, three Democrats have announced for the seat: former reporter and Iraq War veteran Bill Cahir, Clearfield County Commissioner Mike McCraken and Lock Haven Mayor Rick Vilello.

So perhaps it’s best to start with just one number: the $1.2 million that Shaner has loaned his campaign since he announced his candidacy about three months ago. Not only is that number a state record for a Pennsylvania Congressional race, but it also buys loads of air time in north-central Pennsylvania, where the dominant media market in the district is also the cheapest in the state.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), who has not endorsed a candidate, said he sees Shaner as being the most aggressive in the race so far.

“He’s put the resources in to get his name better known outside of the normal party circles,” Santorum said.

Santorum said the person with the best turnout operation will prevail in a nine-way primary and that Shaner, who at one time worked for him, has put together a strong campaign.

“To that extent, the person that’s the best known, the person who is on TV and on the radio, is going to have a big advantage,” he added.

But an aide for Walker said Shaner has had to spend that much to clean up his image following news that he had run from a DUI incident last year.

“I think if I had his reputation, I would be forced to do the same thing,” said Walker campaign manager Chad Horner.

Horner said Walker had put about $150,000 of his own funds into the race so far.

“We’ve got a great team on the ground,” Horner said. “We’ve got coordinators in place in every single county. This district, the way other people have won it in the past, with Sen. Santorum and Congressman Peterson and others, it’s all grass roots.”

Some Republicans hold the theory that a candidate could win the GOP primary by focusing on the dozen or so less-populated counties north of Interstate 80, which runs east-west through the southern portion of the district.

“I personally believe that if someone can organize the counties above 80, they have a great shot of winning it,” Khare said.

And a candidate’s county of origin plays a particularly large role on the Keystone State ballot, where each contender’s hometown is listed under his name.

Two of the candidates who are putting their own funds into the race, Shaner and Walker, hail from the two most populous neighboring southern counties, and Shaner has additional competition in Centre County, the most populous in the district.

“What’s interesting is that there’s a lot of competition in the Centre County region, which is the most populous area of the district,” said Pennsylvania GOP spokesman Michael Bailey. “To campaign above [I-80], it’s probably a good strategy. You figure that a few candidates are probably going to split Centre County.”

For example, Stroehmann is from an eastern county north of the Interstate. Stroehmann, whose family no longer owns the famous bakery, has put about $100,000 of his own money into the race, according to his campaign. His campaign logo closely resembles the bakery’s.

Peterson hails from western Venango County, which is north of the Interstate. The six-term Congressman has stayed out of the primary so far, though the longer he waits, the less impact his endorsement might have on a such a crowded field.

A spokesman for Peterson, Pat Creighton, said the Congressman has no plans to endorse anyone at this moment.

“He’s going to continue to evaluate the candidates,” Creighton said. “If he sees a candidate that rises head and shoulders above the rest, then he’ll endorse.”

Creighton denied rumors in 5th district GOP circles that Peterson might endorse Stroup, who hails from the neighboring Clarion County.

“I would say that each of the nine candidates have a equal opportunity for the Congressman’s endorsement,” Creighton said.