While all eyes are riveted on the looming state budget deadline in Harrisburg, the political story of the summer is now playing out in Delaware County where a special election for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has become the latest flashpoint in the ongoing internal GOP battle between union-leaning southeastern Republicans and the party’s pro-worker freedom grassroots.
The drama began to unfold when state Rep. Joe Hackett, R-161 of Ridley Township, resigned at the end of April. Despite having been re-elected just months earlier, Hackett decided he wanted to return to his old career in law enforcement. That set the stage for a special election which will be held on Aug. 4. Nominees in legislative special elections are chosen by the respective political parties rather than by voters in a primary. Thus, a candidate not selected by committee members has no recourse other than to run a write-in campaign. Such write-in campaigns had previously proven to be fruitless, until state Sen. Scott Wagner scored a historic write-in victory in a special election in York County last year.
The Delaware County Republican committee members participating in the selection of a nominee for Hackett’s 161st district seat chose a candidate who has riled grassroots conservatives across the commonwealth. They picked as their candidate Paul Mullen, who is president of the Delaware County AFL-CIO and business manager of IBEW Local 654. In doing so, the committee passed over Lisa Esler, a local school board member and co-founder of the Delaware County Tea Party Patriots.
As a labor union boss, Mullen can be expected to oppose most of the pro-worker freedom agenda being advanced by the Republican-controlled Legislature in Harrisburg. Pension reform, liquor privatization and paycheck protection are but three important issues that enjoy widespread support among the GOP grassroots and in the Republican caucuses in the Legislature. Progress on all three of these reforms has been blocked by the labor unions. Worse, Mullen supported Democrats Barack Obama, Joe Sestak against U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, and Tom Wolf over Gov. Tom Corbett, making his selection by the GOP even more curious.
The Mullen pick lit a power keg of fury among conservatives. Esler has stepped forward and will challenge the union boss in the upcoming special election by running a write-in campaign. Her efforts should be taken seriously for two reasons: The Wagner win proves it can be done; and the district is almost evenly divided by party registration meaning this is more than just a GOP intramural competition.
Sen. Wagner’s election has changed the political landscape in a number of ways. Most notably party domination of special elections is now a thing of the past. With active and highly effective conservative groups now operating in the state, a write-in candidate such as Esler now has access to funding, consultants and grassroots workers previously unavailable to such challengers.
The Wagner write-in victory in York County, the first time in state history a write-in candidate won a special Senate election, proved the playing field has been leveled. Wagner was well funded, had substantial grassroots support from the local tea party and benefitted from a voter backlash over the high-handed campaign run by those supporting the party’s nominee.
All of those factors are at play in the Delaware County race. In what will be a low turn-out election in a small geographic district, Esler will be a force with which to be reckoned. The outcome will have no impact on party control of the Legislature. The GOP has a historically large majority, but it will impact the GOP caucus. A small group of southeastern Pennsylvania Republican representatives, out of step with a majority of their caucus, have sided with Democrats on labor power issues. Those looking to enhance worker freedom in the state will be anxious to prevent another member from being added to their number.
And that is how what should have been a routine, sleepy special election in the dead of summer could turn out to be the political battle of the year.
Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal.