Republicans can't lose in the 81st Legislative District.
A GOP victory for the seat that covers Huntingdon and parts of Blair and Mifflin counties is so assured the House Republican Campaign Committee is happy to stand on the sidelines, even though the Democratic nominee happens to be an incumbent state representative with four terms under his belt.
"We will not be participating in that race," said state Rep. Dave Reed, the Indiana County Republican who chairs the HRCC.
That might sound like an odd statement given the contested nature of the seat, but the race for the 81st has been anything but normal this year. That's because the Democratic nominee is actually Republican state Rep. Mike Fleck, who has held the seat since 2007.
Fleck lost May's primary election to fellow Republican and Huntingdon County Treasurer Rich Irvin, but Democratic voters granted him an extra political life by writing him in as their nominee and giving him a victory by 15 votes, 901-886, over Irvin in the Democratic primary.
If that wasn't unusual enough, Irvin beat Fleck with a write-in campaign after he was removed from the ballot for failing to file a statement of financial interest.
Fleck's loss in the Republican primary, in a district that previously backed him in multiple elections, may provide an answer, depending on the result of the general election.
Fleck spoke to PA Independent via email between appearances at the Huntingdon County Fair but has already said publicly to WITF he believes the primary results were swayed partially by reaction to his sexuality.
Fleck lost the GOP primary the same day a federal judge struck down Pennsylvania's ban on gay marriage.
Huntingdon County GOP Chairman C. Arnold McClure partly attributed Fleck's Republican primary loss to that decision, but said policy matters also played a role.
Fleck's voting record had moved too far to the left for the conservative district, while his ties to labor unions also bothered some people, McClure said.
The county chairman also surmised anti-incumbency feelings were in play and indicated Fleck's relationship with the county party had grown chilly - a relationship Fleck said has been complicated by past politics.
"So, there were a lot of people unhappy, but it's almost impossible to oust an incumbent - until Mike gave his opponents some help with his announcement," McClure said. "That's really what did it. If he would have stayed quiet, he would probably still be representative."
Now the question is whether the Republican power structure will back an incumbent Republican now on the Democratic ticket or a Republican challenger who has the support of GOP voters. The county party is obligated to support Irvin, the voters' choice, McClure said. The HRCC is playing the race "hands off," Reed said. A Republican, after all, will win either way.
Leo Knepper, executive director of the conservative Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, contends the HRCC's neutrality translates to support for Fleck. The incumbent already has a fundraising apparatus in place and financial support from unions, Knepper said.
This year, Fleck has received $12,500 from the union-backed Good Jobs PA PAC, run by state Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Montgomery, which funnels donations to moderate Republican candidates. The PAC also paid more than $4,400 on a direct mail piece for Fleck, according to campaign finance records.
"If the HRCC's job is to help the Republican nominee, they are completely failing in that respect in this race," Knepper said.
That's not to say Irvin hasn't had outside help, even if it came before he got in the race. Knepper said CAP, trying to find someone to run against Fleck, began targeting the lawmaker with mailers and ads critical of Fleck before he announced he was gay.
Criticism of Fleck's support for raising the gas tax at the wholesale level and his ties to organized labor continued into the new year.
Fleck said he has heard little of those criticisms. "CAP has done a good job at confusing my constituents," he said.
Fleck's vote for liquor privatization and support of property tax reform legislation, both unpopular with unions, demonstrate, he said, that his union connections are "overblown."
Fleck said in his email he didn't seek HRCC help in the primary, although it would have helped immensely in a tough race, because he's "always run independently." Fleck paid for the legal fees through his campaign and didn't ask for HRCC assistance in the general election, he said.
"There's no animosity or anything remotely like that, but I never wanted to be beholden to any party machine," Fleck said. "The biggest thing they bring to the table is money and consultants. I already had both."
Describing the race as a "David and Goliath battle," Irvin said the lack of any outside attacks would help his campaign, which is relying on donations from only within the district.
"I know in my district who I can count on for support. I know who I can count on for financial funding, and it's much appreciated," Irvin said.
At the Huntington County Fair, where the candidates were jockeying for votes, the situation is, at best, awkward, McClure said.
"This is a very unpleasant time to be county chairman," McClure said. "It's not fun."