ST. CLAIR, Pa. (AP) – Rep. Tim Holden takes his place at the bar, among the beer drinkers in baseball caps at the St. Clair Fish and Game Club. The target shooters have hung up their rifles and the locals – Holden included – are watching the Eagles game on TV.
“Oh yeah, all sorts of liberals hang out here,” Holden, a Democrat seeking re-election against Republican Rep. George Gekas, says sarcastically as he looks around the wood-paneled room. An ad calling Holden a “typical tax-and-spend liberal” appears during the commercial break.
“Look at this,” he calls out to a friend. “Hey, Wally, they’re lying again.”
The Republicans don’t see it that way.
“He says he’s a conservative,” Gekas said of Holden in an interview this week. “But he fails as a conservative. And stands out as a liberal.”
Holden does say he’s conservative, but he’s having to fight the liberal label in Pennsylvania’s 17th District race of incumbents.
The election is one of four in the nation where congressmen are pitted against each other as a result of the 10-year redistricting process. Though no independent polls have been taken, the race is considered one of the closest anywhere, important in determining whether Republicans or Democrats control the House next year.
Republicans agree the 72-year-old Gekas, a 20-year House veteran, is in the toughest race of his career against Holden, 45, a 10-year House member in his own right. Gekas is “right up there” among the GOP’s most vulnerable incumbents, says Rep. Tom Davis, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.
But Gekas has an important advantage: Republican voters far outnumber Democrats in the largely rural district in central Pennsylvania. Voters here supported George W. Bush over Al Gore by a 15-point margin in the 2000 presidential election. And Gekas has aligned himself with the president, urging voters to “let this George W. help that George W.” and describing Holden as a liberal Democrat.
Gekas and national Republicans point to Holden’s support for labor unions, his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and his vote for former President Clinton’s 1993 tax increase as evidence of liberal leanings. Holden also voted against President Bush’s 2001 tax cut and eliminating the estate tax, and he sided with Democrats over Republicans on prescription drugs and privatizing Social Security.
But Holden is also a pro-gun, pro-death penalty, anti-abortion lawmaker who supported welfare reform and was given a 48 percent approval rating by the American Conservative Union in 2001.
By comparison, Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts scored 4 percent. Holden voted this month to allow Bush to use force in Iraq, and he supports eliminating the “marriage penalty” tax.
“Is he a liberal? I probably wouldn’t use that word,” Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-of-center Washington think tank, said of Holden. “In his old district, which was pretty conservative, he’s done pretty effectively,” Ornstein said. “But he’s got a whole lot of voters now who don’t know him.”
With less than two weeks to go before the election, Holden is concerned about winning over voters who only know him by the “liberal” ads they see on TV.
His campaign lawn signs do not identify him as a Democrat, and he is eager to talk about his two terms as Schuylkill County sheriff – a job he won despite a 4-3 Republican voter edge.
The North American trade agreement and the emotional issue of lost factory jobs sparked some fireworks at the candidates’ debate last week in Allentown. Holden took issue with Gekas’ statement that the number of jobs statewide had gone up in the past few years.
“Maybe because of McDonald’s and maybe because of Arby’s, there were more jobs created,” Holden said. “But the good manufacturing jobs that were the heart and soul of Berks County are gone. And I didn’t vote for NAFTA, and you did.”
Gekas retorted, “We ought to applaud Arby’s and McDonald’s for having those jobs available. … If they have jobs at those hamburger joints, that means people are working.”
Holden, who said that 36,000 manufacturing jobs were eliminated as a result of NAFTA, looked incredulous. “You’re telling those workers, be happy you’ve got a job for minimum wage?” he asked.
“They’re as important in the work force as anyone else,” Gekas countered. “Do not demean those jobs, because they count. They count.”
Meanwhile, the airwaves have been saturated with the campaigns’ ads, supplemented by $2.4 million from the NRCC and an additional $1 million from a conservative group supported by pharmaceutical companies. The NRCC ads, in particular, have made a point of noting Holden’s pro-tax votes and appear to have hit home with some viewers.
“Tax-and-spend liberal. That’s what I remember,” said Paula Stiffler, 39, a Republican from Marysville, which is part of the new ground Holden has to cover. She said she plans to vote for Gekas.