Charges Fly, and So Does the Spending, in Pa. GOP Primaries

Posted April 21, 2008 at 6:29pm

To quote a certain Democratic presidential candidate, there are a lot of bitter people in small-town Pennsylvania these days.

But these bitter folks are not voters — they’re candidates in Keystone state Republican primaries, many of whom are reaching deeply into their own pockets to fund their campaigns.

Today’s Pennsylvania’s primary will not only help decide the Democratic presidential nominee, but also will determine the winners in the 5th district open-seat race to replace retiring Rep. John Peterson (R) and in the 10th district Republican primary to face freshman Rep. Christopher Carney (D) this fall. For Democrats, today’s elections will produce a nominee in three contested Democratic primaries.

In the 5th district, Republican millionaire businessmen Derek Walker and Matt Shaner have spent $806,000 and $1.2 million, respectively, of their own funds in what might be one of the most negative and strangest campaigns this state has ever experienced.

Peterson’s late retirement announcement in January left a wide-open field in the large, rural northcentral Pennsylvania district with nine candidates and no frontrunner in sight. Peterson eventually endorsed Centre County Republican Chairman Glenn Thompson, but he did so less than two weeks before the primary and possibly too late to make a difference.

Shaner and Walker, both of whom were considered in the first tier of candidates because of their grandiose campaign coffers, went extremely negative during the campaign.

Shaner was attacked for his single-car DUI incident in which he fled the scene of the crime, though no one was injured.

And last week, a local newspaper reported that Walker was charged with two felonies and four misdemeanors involving an incident last summer at his former girlfriend’s house. According to the Centre Daily Times, the complaint accused Walker of entering an unlocked apartment and using his cell phone to record his ex-girlfriend in an “intimate moment” with another man last August.

Walker denied the charges, calling them politically motivated, though the local district attorney told the Centre Daily Times that he was not pressured to release the matter before today’s primary.

National Republican consultant Mark Campbell, who works in Pennsylvania, called the primary one of the most “bizarre” races he has seen in his career.

“If you wrote the 5th district primary as a made-for-TV movie, they would throw you out of the office because everything about it was just too stupid,” he said.

And the incidents, without a doubt, are made for television in the form of advertisements across the district.

Walker has sponsored spots referring to Shaner’s DUI incident, in addition to an advertisement responding to the charges against him. Shaner’s campaign told the Centre Daily Times that it planned to air a commercial about Walker’s incident but said they pulled the advertisement after the charges were filed.

“If Walker or Shaner wins, voters have been living in a cave,” Campbell said. “I would bet on somebody other than those two … and John Peterson’s been a great Congressman, and I think what he says matters.”

Peterson’s chosen candidate, Thompson, hails from Centre County, the most populous part of the district. It’s possible that he could do more harm to Shaner’s and Walker’s respective campaigns by splitting the vote in that county, though Campbell sees the retiring Congressman’s endorsement as more of a boost for Thompson.

By comparison, the 10th district Republican primary can only be a less negative race. However, both GOP candidates, millionaire businessmen Dan Meuser and Chris Hackett, also went on the attack in the waning weeks of the campaign. Meuser had put $1.5 million of his own funds into the race, while Hackett — who also has the backing of the Club for Growth — has given about $793,300 to his own campaign.

The winner of Tuesday’s primary will face Carney, who won his seat is this heavily GOP district in 2006 after a scandal involving the married, then-Rep. Don Sherwood (R) and allegations that he strangled his girlfriend.

Carney was the first Democrat in 30 years to take the seat. But despite the GOP bend of the northeastern Pennsylvania seat, a bloody GOP primary might hurt the winner’s momentum heading toward November.

Nonetheless, national Republicans remain optimistic that they can keep the 5th district in their column and take the 10th district back.

“These primary contests have revolved around the key Republican issues of taxes, spending and illegal immigration,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ken Spain said. “Given the heavy Republican tilt of both districts, the positions of each respective GOP nominee will no doubt resonate with voters.”

For the Democratic Congressional races in the 3rd, 5th and 18th districts, campaigning got a little more complicated when the presidential contest moved to their state. Not only were both Democrats and Republicans competing for air time with these multimillion-dollar national campaigns, but a high-profile race creates unexpected turnout models in Democratic Congressional primaries across the state.

In the 3rd district, four Democrats battle it out for the chance to take on Rep. Phil English (R) this fall. The Erie-based district is inexpensive, but consultants say the presidential campaign has put a monkey wrench in the fundraising and ad-buying plans in the area.

“The race has been pretty quiet because of the presidential, because no one had much money,” said one Democratic consultant who works in the Keystone state.

According to the consultant, businesswoman Kathy Dahlkemper could win because she has run the most television advertisements. The consultant said Dahlkemper’s gender —she’s the only woman in the race — could also help her in this election year in particular.

In another scenario, however, Erie County Councilman Kyle Foust could win because of his name identification as the only elected official in the race and his family’s political ties to the area.

“He knows what to do more on Election Day, and he’s got some labor support,” the Democratic consultant said.

The other two Democrats in the race, church worker Mike Waltner and attorney Tom Myers, have put together grass-roots campaigns, but it’s difficult to see how either of them had enough money to get a message out with the presidential primary in the state.

Meanwhile, in the 18th district seat held by Rep. Tim Murphy (R), three Democrats are running for the nomination. Government consultant Beth Hafer (D) was initially considered a frontrunner because of the last name she shares with her mother, a former statewide Democratic official who was once a moderate Republican.

However Hafer’s dismal fundraising made some Democrats look to businessman Steve O’Donnell, who has put a great deal of his own money into the race. But a gender-charged electorate could bring Hafer to victory in today’s primary, which will also surely include many occasional voters familiar with her mother’s name.

“Hafer has been … a complete disappointment as a candidate,” a Democratic consultant said. “But does gender end up carrying her across the finish line? By most accounts, O’Donnell has put together a good campaign.”

And in the 5th district, Iraq War veteran and former journalist Bill Cahir, Lock Haven Mayor Rick Vilello and Clearfield County Commissioner Mike McCracken are running for the Democratic nod.

Although the district is one of the most Republican in the state, some operatives foresee a situation in which a surprisingly strong Democratic candidate could defeat a scandal-ridden Republican candidate in Peterson’s 5th district. After all, the district votes only slightly more Republican in presidential contests than freshman Democrat Carney and eight-term Rep. Tim Holden’s (D) rural Pennsylvania districts.