Redistricting Watch: Primary Trouble for Tim Holden?

By Keegan Gibson, Managing Editor

At first glance, it may seem that the GOP would be doing Democrat Tim Holden a favor if they follow through with plans to add Lackawanna County to his district. But with Holden’s blue-dog vulnerability in a Democratic primary, it might be more of a mixed bag.

“We don’t hold any of the cards [in redistricting], so we’re waiting to see what’s dealt to us,” said a source close to Holden. “But the Congressman will seek re-election regardless of the outcome.”

In 2010, Holden was ranked as the 14th most conservative Democrat by the National Journal Annual Ratings, a reflection on a consistent trend in Holden’s career. He voted against the health care law, and has universally sided with his district’s agriculture community against some environmental regulations.

His independent voting record is part of the reason Holden, now the senior Democrat in the PA delegation, has done so well in the GOP-leaning 17th district. During last year’s Republican wave for example, Holden won with 55.5 percent of the vote. That nearly matched the 56.3 percent percentage of U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who represents a district considered much safer for Democrats.

That same independent record could be a liability for Holden in a primary, especially if Holden draws more than one challenger. Holden would be most vulnerable in a primary if he faces a favorite son of Lackawanna County at the same time as a member of the African American community in Harrisburg.

“If there is Shelia Dow-Ford and a candidate from northeast PA, Holden might have trouble,” said one Democratic insider with extensive primary campaign experience in northeast PA. “That’s if Shelia can poll 40% in Dauphin County and the NEPA candidate can raise $600K plus.”

An educator and community activist, Shiela Dow-Ford challenged Holden in 2010. She drew on support from progressives upset over Holden’s health care vote and her African American base in Harrisburg. Dow-Ford is rumored to be looking at another challenge to Holden, though PoliticsPA was unable to reach her for comment.

Current GOP redistricting plans would move potential 2012 candidates, including Lackawanna County Commissioner Corey O’Brien and Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty, out of freshman Republican Lou Barletta’s district and into Holden’s.

O’Brien, with the backing of union endorsements, was called “the most competitive House primary challenger in the country” when he challenged incumbent Rep. Paul Kanjorski last year.

Doherty’s ambitions are fairly clear. He has run for Governor and State Senate in the past year.

Eric Nagy managed Tim Holden’s campaigns in 2010, including his 65 – 35 percent primary win over Dow-Ford. He’s also worked in Northeast PA.

“Having Lackawanna County in the district would certainly make for an interesting primary scenario, but I wouldn’t be rushing to place bets against Tim Holden,” said Nagy.  “Not only is he a well-established brand, but he’s also earned his success, because he’s one of the hardest working members of Congress.  I just don’t think you can campaign harder than Tim Holden.  The Republicans learned that lesson the hard way in 2001 and it backfired tremendously.  Their proposed redistricting map clearly indicates that they have no interest in history repeating itself.”

The GOP attempted to draw Holden out of a district in 2001, only to have the wily former Schuylkill County Sheriff defeat senior Republican Congressman George Gekas.

“The simple fact remains that no one, from either party, is more experienced and better suited to represent the 17th Congressional district, of which Lackawanna would be a fairly natural extension.  Tim’s strong record of facing the issues of Schuylkill County, like creating jobs and spurring economic development, is a message that could easily be adapted for Scranton and other points northeast.”

There is a long way to go before the new map is finalized, but Holden, no stranger to redistricting challenges, isn’t laying back.

Sources confirm that Holden actively maintains good relations with Democrats in counties surrounding the 17th district.

Whitney Roper contributed to this report.

March 25th, 2011 | Posted in Front Page Stories, Harrisburg, Redistricting Watch | No Comments