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The Pennsylvania special election you haven’t heard about

Voters in 12th District will pick a replacement for Tom Marino next week

Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., resigned in January shortly after being sworn in. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., resigned in January shortly after being sworn in. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It wasn’t that long ago that a special election in Pennsylvania attracted national attention and millions of dollars. But this year, the race in the state’s 12th District has flown under the radar.

Voters head to the polls next Tuesday to replace Republican Tom Marino, who resigned just shortly after the new Congress began. This election hasn’t captured the national spotlight — a marked shift from 14 months ago, when the special election in Pennsylvania’s old 18th District grabbed headlines. Democrat Conor Lamb pulled off an upset there even though President Donald Trump carried the district by 20 points in 2016.

The lack of attention this year could be because the 12th District is even deeper in Trump country. The president would have carried the north-central Pennsylvania seat by 36 points had the state’s current congressional lines been in place then.

GOP state Rep. Fred Keller is expected to defeat Democrat Marc Friedenberg, an assistant cybersecurity professor. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Republican.

But the race will get some national attention next week when Trump visits the district to hold a rally in Montoursville on Monday. Keller will attend.

A quiet race

Neither national party has engaged in the election, which could be a product of the 12th District’s partisan lean.

Trump’s 36-point margin here is larger than any other seat Democrats actively targeted in special elections last year and in 2017. The GOP also has a sizable registration advantage over Democrats, 55 percent to 31 percent, according to data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of State. Fourteen percent were registered as no party or third party. 

And Marino’s seat was not among several Pennsylvania districts that became more competitive last year when the House map was redrawn, the result of a partisan gerrymandering case. 

Next week’s special election is also occurring on the same day as the state’s municipal primaries, which are closed, meaning unaffiliated voters cannot vote in the intra-party contests. Independents are not accustomed to voting on primary day, so it’s unclear how many will turn out to vote in the special election.

Outside spending since the candidates received their parties’ nods has included nearly $62,000 for digital ads and mailers supporting Keller.

The outside groups backing Keller include the House Freedom Caucus’ political arm, a PAC affiliated with former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, and Freedom’s Defense Fund. The Club for Growth also spent against one of the GOP contenders before Keller was chosen as the nominee at a party convention in March.

While the national party hasn’t been involved, Keller has been in contact with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Minority Whip Steve Scalise, as well as Trump’s 2020 team, according to Keller campaign manager Jon Anzur. Keller has endorsements from the National Rifle Association, the Chamber of Commerce and the Freedom Caucus (although Anzur did not expect Keller to join the caucus).

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Democratic groups have stayed out of the race, except for NextGen America, a youth voter group backed by billionaire Tom Steyer. NextGen registered 4,000 voters in 2018 at Penn State, which is in the 12th District. The group is working to remind those students to vote via absentee ballot, since school is already out, as well as targeting voters between the ages of 18 and 35 with a canvassing program.

“Democrats need to compete everywhere for every vote in 2019, into 2020 and even after that,” NextGen Pennsylvania director Larissa Sweitzer said of the group’s involvement in a safe Republican district.

Unlike Democrats in past special elections, Friedenberg has not been raking in campaign money. He raised $45,000 in April, compared to Keller’s $225,000. Friedenberg had $135,000 on hand as of May 1, according to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, while Keller had $137,000.

Friedenberg has had some FEC issues. A 12th District resident filed a complaint related to his first quarter report, which showed that he spent less than $800, despite campaigning during that period and announcing staff hires.

“The issues are being addressed and the campaign will file an amended report before the election,” Friedenberg campaign spokesman Greg Minchak said. “The individuals responsible are no longer associated with the campaign. Going forward, the campaign is confident in the accuracy of the data.”

Message testing 

The race does offer an early opportunity for parties to test their messages ahead of 2020 —the candidates are offering different views about government’s role in society — although it is not a perfect test, given the district’s partisan lean. 

“I hear from voters all the time … how we need government involvement in fixing the problems we all face,” Friedenberg said in a recent debate. “No one has been able to make it as one individual, alone, against the world.”

Friedenberg, who lost to Marino by 32 points in 2018,  supports “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal. But he hasn’t talked much about those proposals on the campaign trail. Instead he has focused on his status as a political outsider, his calls to improve infrastructure, education and health care, and his rejection of corporate PAC money.  

Keller’s campaign has highlighted his personal story, growing up in a poor family and working his way up at Conestoga Wood Specialties, a factory that produces kitchen cabinet doors and other wooden kitchen items. He was elected to the state House in 2010. If elected next week, Keller would be one of just two House members who did not attend college. 

“This is a heavy manufacturing, heavy agriculture district and Fred’s story really fits in with what a lot of families experience here,” said Anzur, Keller’s campaign manager.

Keller’s campaign has also echoed GOP messaging in other races, warning of socialism and the high costs of liberal proposals like the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. 

“There’s a fight going on,” a narrator says in one of Keller’s latest ads on Facebook. “It’s a battle between those who say we should go the socialist way of the Green New Deal and those like Fred Keller who say there’s a better way to make America great.”

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