Pennsylvania 12th District special election: What happened and why?

Marc Friedenberg addresses State College crowd after special election

Democrat Marc Friedenberg addresses a State College crowd on Tuesday, May 21, 2019, as results showed Republican Fred Keller was projected to win the special election for Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District.
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Democrat Marc Friedenberg addresses a State College crowd on Tuesday, May 21, 2019, as results showed Republican Fred Keller was projected to win the special election for Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional District.

Many were expecting Republican Congressional candidate Fred Keller’s Tuesday night victory in the 12th District’s special election, where the Snyder County state representative easily defeated Ferguson Township Democrat Marc Friedenberg.

And while Keller won by a margin of nearly 40%, other factors besides the traditionally red district may have contributed to the victory, including low voter turnout, coinciding with municipal primaries, and a boost from President Donald Trump.

Keller won the 12th District with 89,109 votes or 68.1% of total votes, according to Associated Press unofficial vote counts. Friedenberg, meanwhile, secured 41,752 votes — 31.9% of the total vote. In sum, 130,861 total votes were cast, per unofficial vote counts.

Rep. Fred Keller, R-Snyder, right, speaks as President Donald Trump looks on during a campaign rally in Montoursville on Monday. Matt Rourke AP

That’s a large departure from the 2018 midterm elections, where incumbent Republican Tom Marino took the district with 161,047 votes or 66% of total votes, and Friedenberg gathered 82,825 votes with 34% of the total vote. Overall, 243,872 votes were cast — almost double the amount cast this year.

In Centre County, total voter turnout hovered at 23.8% — relatively normal for a primary, said poll workers interviewed by the CDT, but much lower than any midterm election in the last 10 years, according to data from the Centre County website.

In fact, turnout was slightly higher compared to previous municipal primary elections, where for the last five municipal primaries, turnout hovered around 18%, according to county data.

Voter turnout in Centre County in the 2018 midterms surpassed every non-presidential year midterm since 2010, with Penn State precincts showing exceptionally high increases in voter turnout. But Penn State let out for the summer by the time the special election rolled around, and voter turnout rates for on-campus precincts were much lower than the midterms, with some polling places gathering less than 1% turnout.

Friedenberg, an assistant Penn State professor specializing in cybersecurity, took 66.2% of the vote in Centre County on Tuesday, up from the 63% of the vote he captured in the 2018 midterms.

Surrounded by his family, Ferguson Township Democrat Marc Friedenberg addresses the crowd at his election night watch party Tuesday night at the Hyatt Place in State College shortly after the special election for the Pennsylvania 12th Congressional District was called for his opponent, Republican Fred Keller. Linsey Fagan For the CDT

Some independents were not aware they were allowed to vote in the special election until mere days before Election Day, said Centre Hall precinct Judge of Elections Carol Clark-Baney. Several independent voters showed up at polling places around Centre County, only to find out their precincts were not included in the 12th Congressional District, according to poll workers.

A few independent voters also called in to the county elections office wondering why they couldn’t vote, and found out they were not included in the 12th District, said Director of Elections Joyce McKinley.

Independent voters had an 8.4% voter turnout rate for the special election, casting 1,182 ballots. There are 14,038 nonpartisan voters registered in Centre County, according to county voting records.

The 12th District is made up of 15 counties in central and northcentral Pennsylvania, including part of Centre County — College, Ferguson, Gregg, Haines, part of Halfmoon, Harris, Miles, Penn and Potter townships and Centre Hall, Millheim and State College boroughs.

Trump held his first Pennsylvania rally of 2019 on Monday evening in Montoursville — located in Lycoming County, which chose Keller by 47 percentage points and Trump by 44 percentage points in 2016. He urged rallygoers to vote for Keller, who made an appearance at the rally. The 12th District went for Trump by 36 percentage points in 2016, while Centre County was the only county to prefer Hillary Clinton.

Keller, 53, has served as state representative for Snyder and Union counties since 2010 and formerly managed a Conestoga Wood Specialties facility in Snyder County.

“I’m honored to have the support of the hardworking people of the 12th Congressional District and for their trust in electing me to represent them in Congress,” Keller said in a statement Tuesday night. “Tonight is the beginning of us working together to address the issues that the people have told us will positively impact every family across central and northeast Pennsylvania.”

Throughout his campaign to represent the 12th District, Keller — who raised $397,793 mostly in itemized individual contributions — received financial support from many different conservative PACs, including the Freedom’s Defense Fund’s PAC and Supporting Electing American Leaders’ PAC, reported the Center for Responsive Politics. Friedenberg — who raised $153,998 over the past few months — garnered more money than Keller in smaller donations and did not receive any PAC funding, CRP reported.

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