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Westmoreland County lawmakers unchallenged in primary

Rich Cholodofsky
| Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2016, 11:15 p.m.

Contested races for state legislative seats in the April 26 primary in Westmoreland County are almost as rare as a Democrat at a Lincoln Day dinner.

The deadline for candidates to file nomination papers was Tuesday, and just one local race — a Democratic primary for the 58th District state House seat held by retiring Rep. Ted Harhai, D-Monessen — will be contested.

All the county's incumbent legislators in the state House and Senate will be unopposed in the primary, and many have no apparent challenger in the general election.

“You don't have primaries when voters are generally happy or the incumbent hasn't done something stupid,” said Terry Madonna, director of Franklin & Marshall's Center for Politics and Public Affairs. “Political parties don't do the same sort of job recruiting candidates as they did in the past.”

Of the 189 incumbents across the state who are seeking re-election in the state House, only 26 will face a primary challenge. In the state Senate, where 25 seats are up for election this year, only four incumbents face party challenges, according to Madonna.

“I was struck by the relatively low number of primary challenges,” Madonna said.

Madonna suggested that the effort it takes to challenge an incumbent scares off many potential candidates. He said local political leaders don't wield the influence they once had to find candidates.

In the race for Harhai's seat, Democrats fielded four candidates to try to win the nomination. The candidates include West Newton Mayor Mary Popovich; Hempfield school board member Robert McDonald; and Charles Mrlack Jr. and James Manderino II, both from Monessen.

Rostraver attorney Justin Walsh is the lone Republican on the ballot in the 58th District race.

Harhai has represented Monessen, Jeannette, Rostraver, East Huntingdon, West Newton and part of Hempfield for 10 terms.

Democrat Linda Iezzi of South Greensburg and Republican Eric Nelson of Hempfield are seeking to fill the vacant seat representing the 57th District, which was left open when state Rep. Tim Krieger retired last year. Krieger, a Republican, left office when he was elected county judge.

Iezzi and Nelson will square off in a special election March 15 to determine who will serve the last nine months of Krieger's term.

The incumbents in Westmoreland County who are unopposed include:

• Rep. Joe Petrarca, D-Washington Township, 55th District. Republican Michael Geiselhart of Washington Township filed in the Republican primary.

• Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville, 54th District.

• Rep. George Dunbar, R-Penn Township, 56th District.

• Rep. Mike Reese, R-Mt. Pleasant, 59th District.

• Sen. Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, 39th District.

Chairwoman Lorraine Petrosky said the county Democratic Committee tried to find candidates for all of the races, but the prospect of challenging incumbents and the costs of running campaigns were too daunting. The political problems in Harrisburg might have discouraged some potential candidates, she said.

“Of course we want candidates,” Petrosky said. “People are so alienated by what is going on (in Harrisburg), they don't want to be a part of it.”

Republicans said the lack of primary or general election challengers is a vote of support for what incumbents have accomplished.

“It shows Republican voters are happy with the job our guys are doing,” said county GOP Committee Chairman Michael Korns. “It's a testament to a lot of hard work and that people are happy with the people we have in place.”

Rich Cholodofsky is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com.

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