In 12th District Special Election, Democrat Marc Friedenberg Faces A Steep Uphill Fight
A few months ago, Daniel Klein bought two flags to hang on a chainlink fence outside his home in rural Wyoming County.
They say “Trump 2020: No More Bulls---.”
Some people driving along wooded Route 29 stop to take pictures. Some blow their horns.
“I don’t know whether they’re throwing me the bird or saying, ‘Good job,’ but I don’t care,” Klein said.
Klein is a 69-year-old former line operator and mechanic for Procter & Gamble, the largest employer in the county. He thinks Trump is doing a fantastic job, given all the opposition the president has faced.
But his support for Trump doesn’t necessarily motivate him to care about who represents him in Congress. He figures he’ll sit out a special election on May 21.
“I’ve seen the signs, I think,” said Klein, on the back porch of his more than three-acre property. “But I really don’t follow it.”
The special election to replace former GOP Congressman Tom Marino takes place the same day as the May 21 municipal primary. Klein represents the challenge for the candidates running to represent the sprawling 12th congressional district in central and northern Pennsylvania.
On the one hand, turnout and enthusiasm is generally lower in those municipal primaries — when judges, mayors and school board members are on the ballot — than in presidential or congressional election years.
The race has received some attention from outside political groups and donors, but less than Pennsylvania saw last year in tight congressional races in southwestern Pennsylvania, the Harrisburg area and the Philly suburbs.
So Republican Fred Keller and Democrat Marc Friedenberg have to figure out different ways to reach voters.
But, on the other hand, the district votes solidly Republican. So if voters like Klein do turn out, that benefits Keller and hurts Friedenberg.
“It’s just so solidly Republican. I mean there has to be something remarkable that takes place to change the dynamic of it,” said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
Friedenberg, a 35-year-old lawyer and cybersecurity instructor at Penn State, ran for the congressional seat against Marino in November. He lost by about 78,000 votes — or more than 32 percentage points.
During an interview after the only televised debate in the race, Friedenberg said unexpected things can happen in politics — just look at who’s in the White House now.
“There’s a reason you play the game, right? There’s a reason that we have the election,” Friedenberg said. “I mean, you could look at the White House and President Trump and say, ‘Well, nobody thought that he was going to be able to make it there either.’ ”
What Democrats are hoping for
Jackie Baker, a 47-year-old elementary school teacher from Susquehanna County, attended the televised debate on May 2 at WVIA Public Media Studios in Luzerne County.
She’s a member of the Democratic State Committee who met Friedenberg more than a year ago. She’s hoping Friedenberg can build off the first campaign for the 12th congressional seat.
“I think maybe people might know him a little bit better this time,” Baker said. “And I think he has a really … strong platform.”
Friedenberg is originally from Philadelphia. He studied at Penn State, earned a law degree from Columbia, worked as an attorney and returned to Penn State in 2012 as an instructor.
During the campaign, he has said he wants to expand high-speed internet access, let people buy into the Medicare program and protect Social Security.
After receiving the Democratic nomination, Friedenberg said in a statement that he was honored to have the chance to speak to voters “about issues like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal,” according to PoliticsPA.
But during a forum and the televised debate, while Friedenberg focused on the importance of fighting climate change and promoting renewable energy, he didn’t take a hard stance on the Green New Deal.
During the televised debate, he criticized Keller frequently, calling him a career politician who “does what he’s told” in Harrisburg.
Keller, 53, is a former plant operations manager for a Conestoga Wood Specialties facility in Snyder County, and he was first elected to the state House in 2010.
At the debate, he countered that he doesn’t vote in lockstep with Republicans. He said he focuses on results and not “just trying to degrade somebody.”
The chance to debate against his Republican opponent was something Friedenberg didn’t have last time. Marino declined invitations to debate.
The incumbent also met with at least two editorial boards, but when WITF wrote about the race, Marino’s campaign didn’t provide a schedule of his campaign stops or make him available for an interview.
“I really think Tom Marino’s strategy was one of ignoring Marc,” Jeff Gonzalez, a Democrat from Bradford County who attended the debate.
How Republicans are approaching the race
At a campaign stop last week, Keller wasn’t ignoring Friedenberg.
He was at Allison Crane & Rigging, outside Williamsport, to receive the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. During the stop, Keller criticized Friedenberg over a video message in which Friedenberg said, “We should be raising taxes on the middle class so that they’re paying their fair share.”
Friedenberg and his campaign have called the remark an obvious slip of the tongue. In the rest of the video, Friedenberg criticized income inequality and tax cuts for “massive corporations and the richest one percent.”
But Keller said even if the remarks were a mistake, they are still a problem.
“If he can’t even manage something as simple as posting his own message on his own website, why should we trust him to have any input on policy?” Keller told the crowd at Allison Crane & Rigging.
Then Keller promised to work “to keep America great.”
During the campaign stop, Ben Taylor, executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Great Lakes Regional Office, said the chamber didn’t endorse a candidate in a special election in southwestern Pennsylvania last year. That was the March 2018 race in which Democrat Conor Lamb scored an upset victory in a district that Trump had won by about 20 percentage points.
“That clear difference in business issues wasn’t there that time,” Taylor said. “And it is here this time in PA 12.”
Taylor said the chamber’s endorsement isn’t influenced by the big win Republicans had in the district in 2018. Keller also downplayed the significance of Marino’s 2018 win in the district.
“I don’t like getting into trying to figure out what polls say or anything else. …Our job is to make sure that we get our message out,” Keller said.
Supporter Larry Allison Jr., president of the crane and rigging company where Keller stopped, said he felt very confident Keller would win.
“He’s the man, there’s no question about it,” Allison said.
Who’s paying attention
At the end of March, Friedenberg’s campaign reported having nearly $149,000 available. Meanwhile, Keller’s campaign had nearly $164,000.
For some comparison, a few million dollars was spent on a competitive congressional race in the Harrisburg area last year.
But the race has received some outside attention.
Keller welcomed something often cherished by Republican candidates: a Twitter endorsement from Trump. (In southwestern Pa., failed GOP congressional candidate Rick Saccone framed a Trump endorsement tweet.)
NextGen America, a group created by progressive billionaire Tom Steyer, has a regional organizer working in State College. The group has worked to register and mobilize young voters ahead of the special election.
Larissa Sweitzer, the Pennsylvania state director for NextGen, said the group has “about 10 strong volunteers, and we’re definitely gearing up here.”
Sweitzer said the goal is to knock on 2,000 doors in the district, and help over 100 students and young people vote by absentee ballots. Part of the goal, Sweitzer said, is to get young people used to voting so it works like “muscle memory” in elections.
Penn State’s spring semester ended before the May 21 primary, and the group encouraged students to vote by absentee ballot before they left town. The group is focusing its canvassing in the State College area, which leans heavily toward Democrats.
The rest of the district is more Republican-leaning.
About 70 miles away from State College, at Dolly’s Diner outside Williamsport, Chris Bower described himself as a conservative Democrat. He said that’s kind of tough to be these days.
Bower is opposed to abortion — he considers it murder. But he voted for Democrat Hillary Clinton, who supported abortion rights, in 2016 over Republican Donald Trump.
“I can’t support Mr. Trump and everything he stands for,” Bower said. “But many times, it’s just because of the — I guess the personality issues, the basic immorality I think that goes along with him.”
Bower approves of former Vice President Joe Biden “and nearly everything he stands for.” He doesn’t oppose U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who is also running for president. But another prominent Democrat nationally, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, is too liberal for him.
Bower, a 70-year-old retired teacher, follows national politics closely. Sometimes, he’ll listen to conservative commentators, such as Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, to hear more views.
“I’ve never been so fascinated as I am by this,” Bower said.
But he, too, like Trump supporter Klein, represents the candidates’ challenge in Pa.’s 12th district He’s less fascinated by Keller and Friedenberg. He hasn’t decided who he’ll vote for.