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?

Rich Clabaugh/Staff
Map: Pennsylvania's 17th Congressional District

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.

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.”

But he says the campaign is well aware of polls signaling that voters are being influenced by a strong anti-incumbent wave this campaign season. Indeed, many voters say they have little regard for members’ voting records.

What’s more, the influence from the “tea party” movement is strong here, as it is in many Pennsylvania districts. At least 12 busloads of conservative activists traveled on Saturday from the 17th Congressional District to Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor rally at the National Mall in Washington. Argall saw two buses off from Harrisburg early Saturday morning.

“This is one of those years when it’s not great to be a Democrat, but we are keeping it positive,” says Mr. Nagy.

Pennsylvania races draw big outside contributors

At least 10 of the state’s 19 congressional districts are in play this November. Moreover, high-profile races for governor and US Senate are also drawing big money from outside groups into the state. State Attorney General Tom Corbett (R) is favored to win the open seat held by Gov. Ed Rendell (D), who can not serve any longer due to term limits, and former US Rep. Pat Toomey (R) is facing Rep. Joe Sestak (D) in one of the highest-spending races, according to a Franklin & Marshall College poll released Aug. 27.

“Fundraising is a big, uphill battle. It’s more of a struggle than anything,” says Jon Hopcraft, Argall’s campaign manager. “We have quite a few targeted seats [in Pennsylvania], and we’re all going after the same sources.”

While making the money chase tighter than ever, this cluster of high-stakes races in Pennsylvania could also be an asset for Republicans as it could energize voters and compel outside conservative groups to get involved here.

Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative group campaigning against government regulation and deficits, held a rally in the district earlier this month where Argall signed the AFP’s "No Climate Tax Pledge."

“Americans for Prosperity visited Lebanon County because Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi needs Congressman Holden’s vote for reelection to speaker of the House, along with votes for more wasteful spending and bailouts of failing companies,” Argall said at the Aug. 11 event.

The US Chamber of Commerce is also targeting Pennsylvania. The Chamber spent $36 million on issue ads in the 2008 races and is planning to spend “significantly more” this year, according to a spokesman.

While Holden broke with Speaker Pelosi of California on health care and climate change, outside groups are making the case statewide that a vote for a Democrat is a vote for Pelosi and the Obama agenda.

That message is growing louder among an electorate in Pennsylvania, and across the country, that is angry over jobs losses and the economy. That sentiment is expected to give GOP contenders a significant boost on Nov. 2.

“It will be a tough race, but anybody can be defeated,” says Lloyd Hampton, former Republican chairman of Schuylkill County.

“Tim Holden is very respected, but the expansion of government and the insane government spending is creating a perception that our freedoms are being taken from us," says Mr. Hampton. "Even to simply make a living is being strangled by government regulation.”

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