In Pennsylvania, signs that 'Republican revolution' could repeat itself
In Pennsylvania's 17th Congressional District, a Republican challenger with little money poses a serious threat to a Democratic incumbent with deep pockets. Does the race portend a Republican revolution à la 1994?
Hegins Park, Pa.
In another year, Republican state Sen. David Argall would have little chance of toppling nine-term Rep. Tim Holden (D). Mr. Holden is a popular incumbent who typically votes his district, rather than his party, on issues ranging from health care to climate change.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Moreover, Holden is expected to vastly outspend Mr. Argall in the crucial last few weeks of the race. The Republican challenger had barely $30,000 on hand, compared with $938,827 for the incumbent, according to a June 30 report from the Center for Responsive Politics. But Argall is reaching out to national conservative groups for help.
“I’m not going to outspend him,” Argall says, with understatement, before speaking at the annual independent coal miners’ picnic in Hegins Park, Pa., a small Schuylkill County mining community about an hour north of Harrisburg, on Aug. 14. “If it’s a purely local race, the incumbent wins every time. But if it’s truly a national race like 1994, then I have a chance.”
In 1994, Republicans swept back into power in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years on a campaign that charged that the majority had become corrupt and unresponsive. Democrats were stunned to lose 55 seats in a wave of voter outrage. In a rare exception to the rule that all politics is local, that takeover was based on national themes rather than local ones and signaled a widespread rejection of Democratic Party power.
Pollsters are seeing a similar wave building today.
“We had a poll [on Aug. 26] that shows a serious problem with Democratic Party turnout. Argall’s greatest hope is that Democrats will stay home and that angry Republicans will dominate the electorate,” says G. Terry Madonna, who directs the Franklin & Marshall College Poll.
“If Tim Holden loses, the Democrats will lose control of the House,” he adds. “If it happens in that district with him, it happens all over the country.”
A local race reflects the national mood
The 17th Congressional District of Pennsylvania was drawn up as a Republican district after the 2000 census, but Holden has held it since 2003. The district runs from Harrisburg, the capital, east through Pennsylvania Dutch farms, where tourist buses share narrow roads with Amish and Mennonite buggies. The mountains to the northeast of the district are the heart of an expiring anthracite coal industry.
Families in this part of Pennsylvania have worked in the mines for generations. Many who came to the recent picnic recall a time when there were more than 120 independent mines in this region. Today there are two.
The miners' picnic famously includes tub-size vats of soup – bean, chicken noodle, and oxtail – heated on coal fires. Miners, most now retired, talk about the old days and their contempt for a national government that they say has declared war on coal and their way of life.
“It’s a good paying job I have, and if they take it away it’s going to get ugly,” says Steve Forgotch, who works for Schuylkill Energy Resources Inc., coal-fired electric power plant. “People are only going to take so much before they say that’s enough.”
Holder, too, conspicuously opposed the Obama administration’s energy strategy. He voted against House Democratic leaders on an energy bill that included a limit on carbon emissions.
“With cap and trade, you’re basically putting up a closed sign on Schuylkill County,” says Eric Nagy, a spokesman for the Holden campaign. “The congressman voted on that bill the way he felt the people of his district would have voted if they had a chance to vote.”