GOP state lawmaker becomes favorite in US House election

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A Republican state lawmaker survived four rounds of voting Saturday to become the heavy favorite to fill an open congressional seat in northern Pennsylvania.

Rep. Fred Keller beat 13 other candidates during closed-door voting at an event hall in Williamsport where 202 party conferees sorted through the field. In the fourth round of voting, Keller captured 113 votes, beating Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko and Jessica Bowman-Hosley, a university professor.

Keller will go on to the May 21 special election against Democrat Marc Friedenberg to represent the sprawling 12th District, which covers all or parts of 15 counties, including Keller’s home in Snyder County.

The winner of the special election will fill the remainder of Tom Marino’s term in the solidly Republican district, where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by about 100,000. Marino, a Republican, cited health reasons for resigning three weeks into his fifth term.

The field opened up a bit for Keller on Saturday after state Rep. Jeff Wheeland dropped out amid attacks by the Washington, D.C.-based anti-tax group Club for Growth. Keller beat a field that included one woman who is an Iraq war veteran and another woman, Bowman-Hosley, who has a doctorate in curriculum and was endorsed by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

In the Pennsylvania state Legislature, the fifth-term Keller, 53, was largely a back-bencher and one of the most conservative state House members, with a 90 percent lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union through 2017. In a statement, Pennsylvania’s Republican Party chairman, Val DiGiorgio, called Keller “the kind of principled, conservative leader” needed for the district.

Friedenberg, 35, is a lawyer and Penn State information technology instructor who lost November’s election to Marino by 32 percentage points.

The district is also a strong source of support for President Donald Trump. Voters there backed the Republican in 2016’s presidential election by better than two-to-one over Democrat Hillary Clinton, and Marino helped steer Trump’s successful campaign for Pennsylvania’s electoral votes.

Before he ran for the state Legislature, Keller was a plant manager for a wood cabinet supplier and ran a real estate management business.

The Democratic Party quickly attacked Keller, saying he will be a rubber stamp for a Republican Party that “gutted programs that help Pennsylvanians in order to pay for tax breaks for the wealthy.”

The Republican Party countered that Friedenberg supports “socialist policies” like an expansion of government-run health insurance plan that Democrats call “Medicare-for-All.” Keller, it said, will “stand up for American values in the halls of Congress.”