81st House District race moves into next phase

The second election pitting Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, against Huntingdon County Treasurer Rich Irvin is more than four months away, but it’s already attracting national attention, drawing shrouded money and splitting local Republicans.

What some described as a divisive, personal primary race could take on wider involvement as the candidates face off from both parties: Irvin running as a Republican and Fleck, also a registered Republican, appearing as the Democratic nominee. It’s set to be a hard-fought race, and it’s already gearing up in some quarters.

Some members of the Huntingdon County Republican Committee were slated to step down to support Fleck, he said, as the party – which mandates that its members back the official Republican candidate – met Thursday for its reorganization meeting. Some individual Democrats, including prominent figures from outside the area, have already stepped up to back him.

Irvin, still planning a “thank-you” dinner for the supporters who led him to a primary victory, could also see a surge of help, both solicited and unsolicited.

“(Fleck’s) defeat received a great deal of national attention, and we could well see interest groups involved in this race in a way we did not see before,” Franklin and Marshall College professor and political analyst G. Terry Madonna told National Public Radio earlier this month.

Some of that involvement has already appeared.

Since the May 20 primary, Fleck has received more than $14,000, according to finance reports; Irvin hasn’t filed numbers yet, but he said he is continuing fundraising efforts.

And while both marked early limits on the support they would accept, they could relax their restrictions or find ways around them as the need for cash becomes more pressing.

For example, Fleck, who has been criticized for being openly gay, said in May that he avoided endorsements from “so-called gay groups” and “didn’t want to give my opposition any room to criticize where my donations came from.” He said a mere $92 from the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay conservative group, gave his enemies fresh ammunition.

A $5,000 donation he received June 3, however, originated with “Pennsylvanians for Economic Competitiveness” – a newly formed group that shares a Philadelphia office address and contact email with Equality Pennsylvania, a nonprofit group advocating gay rights.

The chairman of Pennsylvanians for Economic Competitiveness didn’t return a call seeking comment.

Meanwhile, Irvin – who has said he wouldn’t accept money from political action committees on principle – didn’t totally discount the possibility this week, noting that he hasn’t had a chance to make the decision.

“I honestly haven’t really been contacted by anyone,” Irvin said. “I have not been offered any money from PACs, so I haven’t had to turn anyone down.”

Despite suggestions by Fleck that Irvin has sought outside help, Irvin said he’s not actively looking for committee cash.

With support rolling in and observers suggesting the race could get more personal, both Fleck’s and Irvin’s supporters could scour each other’s campaigns and finances, looking for any chance at criticism. In recent items in Fleck’s hometown newspaper, the Huntingdon Daily News, one voter accused Fleck of “(dragging) the good people of Huntingdon County through the mud” while another offered an oblique reference to Irvin’s personal life.

On Wednesday, Fleck criticized Irvin for accepting $5,000 from an Orbisonia-based artist whose website prominently features computer renderings of genitalia.

“I Google everyone who wants to give me money,” Fleck said.

While neither candidate has said openly that they plan to make the campaign personal, it appears increasingly divisive – and both acknowledged that they can’t control all their supporters’ claims.

Fleck made one prediction: Voters can expect to see more advertising and more outside spending than they might have expected, especially as interest groups and wealthy donors, both wanted and unwanted, flock to the race. A donation to Fleck last month from Mel Heifetz, a wealthy Philadelphia activist who famously gave $1 million to President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, could be a sign of the times.

“I’ve turned money down from people,” Fleck said. “It’s turning into one of those races you see in the southeast [of Pennsylvania], where you easily spend $300,000, $400,000.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.