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Wednesday, April 25th 2012

7:08 PM

In and Out

Yesterday's primary election turned out to be a little more exciting than I thought. Sure, Rick Santorum took away some of the fun by dropping out of the race about two weeks ago, and MITT ROMNEY celebrated his five-state sweep by giving a speech from a sixth state. Even so, there was plenty to talk about, especially since some who were in ended up being out.

Election night coverage by my station focused on a couple of races in which the campaign ads started off positive but went negative pretty quickly.

One of those races was in the reconfigured 17th Congressional District. Democrat Rep. Tim Holden wanted an 11th term in Congress. But, to get that, he would have to fend off a primary challenge from attorney MATT CARTWRIGHT. The newly redrawn district still includes Holden's home county of Schuylkill, but it now runs through the Democratic strongholds of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, places where Cartwright is a familiar name because of all those commercials his law firm runs.

I thought this could get messy for Holden, and it did. He had some positive ads on the air for about a week, then quickly went negative by trying to link the lawyer and his previous campaign contributions to Luzerne County's so-called "Kids for Cash" scandal. Cartwright countered those ads and fought back with his own negative spots that tried to associate Holden, a "Blue Dog" Democrat with the Republicans.

Given Cartwright's name recognition in the revamped district and the overall friendlier tone of his ads, I thought he had a chance to defeat Holden. So, I wasn't surprised when, on Election Night, Cartwright won. What did surprise me was by how much. Cartwright won by close to 10,000 votes - a 14% margin. Holden never really got close. So, Holden is out, and Cartwright is in - if he can defeat Republican challenger LAUREEN CUMMINGS in November.

Another race we followed closely was the GOP race in the 29th state senate district, which is concentrated in Schuylkill County. Dave Argall, a former state rep who made the jump to the senate by winning a special election in 2009, is running for his first full term. He faced a primary challenge from coal company owner Brian Rich. This race also got a lot of air play with Rich trying to paint Argall as a Harrisburg insider and Argall trying to paint Rich as unethical. There were some positive ads, too. Rich used the buzzwords "job creator" while Argall promised he would support legislation to repeal property taxes (which sounds great until you start to wonder what the lawmakers will come up with to replace them).

Anyway, Argall v Rich looked to be another close one, but Argall got an early lead and never gave it up. He won by almost 2,000 votes, a margin of 53%-47%. Closer than Holden/Cartwright, but not as close as I thought. So, Argall is still in, but in November, he'll have to fend off a challenge from Democrat TIM SEIP, a former state rep. I guess I give the early edge to Argall, if for no other reason than that the district has been held by a Republican forever. But, I expect Seip to be a worthy opponent, so, you never know.

Entries on the "out" list include two current state reps from the Scranton area. In the 112th District, Democrat Ken Smith lost by about 300 votes to KEVIN HAGGERTY. 300 votes may not seem like a lot, but it translates to about three percentage points. Smith's financial problems have been well-publicized (including by the news organization that I work for), but he ran a positive ad for a few days leading up to the election and made the race close. He's talked of asking for a recount, but I think 300 votes is a lot to overcome. There were no Republicans on the ballot, so, for all intents and purposes, Smith is out and Haggerty is in. (Update on 4/28: A count of the write-in votes showed that Ray Nearhood won a spot on the GOP ballot. So it will be Haggerty v. Nearhood in November)

In the neighboring 113th, the lone candidates on the ballot were again two Democrats. Incumbent Kevin Murphy and county prison employee MARTY FLYNN. For largely logistical reasons, I didn't pay a lot of attention to this race in my election coverage planning, but I admit I didn't really think it was one I needed to plan for. Well, surprise! At the end of the night, Flynn had won by, again, a margin of roughly 300 votes.

Neither candidate did any TV advertising (at least not that I noticed). But, Murphy took a hit the weekend before Election Day when the local paper revealed (after checking out a tip from a Flynn supporter) that Murphy did not actually have the college degree he claimed he did. In the article, Murphy admitted that he didn't actually have a diploma in his possession, but he said he thought he had earned his degree because the school keeps sending him letters asking for money. He called his claims that he had his degree an honest mistake and went on to say that he expected to have the matter cleared up quickly. Did the oversight cost Murphy the election? No idea, but it probably didn't help. So now, again for all intents and purposes, Murphy is is out and Marty is in like Flynn (sorry, couldn't resist).

In the race for another state house seat based in Lackawanna County, a politico who tried to get back in the game is out. I'm talking the 115th District, where former county commissioner Randy Castellani squared off against landscaper FRANK FARINA. Castellani had the backing of outgoing State Rep. Ed Staback, who's held the seat for more than three decades. But, Farina seems to have pulled off the upset, winning by just over 100 votes. What made the difference? A co-worker seems to think that people haven't forgotten that Castellani quit as a commissioner to take a job with the state. Is it a coincidence that the home page of Farina's website contains the promise, "I'll never quit working for you." I haven't heard anything definite about a recount here, but I won't be surprised if there is one. At any rate, at this point, it appears as though Farina is in and will move on to November, where he'll face Republican THERESA KANE.

Another Kane, this one a Democrat, has managed to make it into November. In what I think is a somewhat surprising victory, KATHLEEN KANE of Lackawanna County, defeated Patrick Murphy in the race for PA Attorney General. Kane will now face DAVID FREED, a DA from the Harrisburg area, in November.

This was another tough one to figure. Conventional wisdom had Murphy winning. But, Kane got her name out there last fall when she appeared on various national newscasts to provide some expert insight into the Jerry Sandusky case. Kane specialized in handling child abuse and sexual assault cases when she worked for the Lackawanna County DA's office. She touted that experience in her TV ads. Murphy, on the other hand, emphasized his military service and his experience as a military prosecutor. Both camps kept things positive. In the end, Kane won by around 40,000 votes, a margin that she said surprised even her. So, Murphy is out and Kane is still in with a chance to be Pennsylvania's first elected female Attorney General.

One more race worth mentioning is the GOP contest for US Senate. Incumbent Democrat BOB CASEY had a primary opponent but dispatched him easily. Casey didn't even hang around his hometown of Scranton after voting in the morning. He went right back to Washington, DC. The Republican side featured five candidates, but played out as a three-man race. Steve Welch had a fair amount of money and the endorsement of Governor Corbett; TOM SMITH had a lot of money; and Sam Rohrer had a familiar name a good ground game. Rohrer never did any TV advertising, but Welch and Smith were always on - mostly fighting over which of these former Democrats had turned into the most conservative conservative. The final results: Smith, Rohrer, Welch. So, Corbett's candidate is out, Smith is in, and Casey will have an opponent in the fall who's not afraid to spend money - even if it's his own.

Take those races, mix in a race for president, and the general election in November should be a good one.
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