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Write-In Campaign Threatens Party-Picked Candidates in Penn. Special Election

by Andrew Gripp, published

In Delaware County, Pennsylvania, a third candidate, Lisa Esler, has emerged in a special election that will take place on August 4 to fill a vacant seat representing the 161st House District in the state's General Assembly.

In April, recently elected Republican Joe Hackett announced he would be leaving office to return to serving as a detective for the county's Criminal Investigation Division.

In late May, the Delaware County GOP announced that it had nominated Paul Mullen to represent the Republican Party in August. A week later, The Delaware County Democratic Committee announced it had chosen Leanne Krueger-Braneky – who had lost the election to Hackett in 2014 – to face off against Mullen.

In special elections, the parties' leadership – not the parties' voters – select their respective nominees.

Some conservatives were not happy with the outcome or process of the GOP's decision.

Mullen's critics contend that he is part of the forces holding up reform in the state legislature. He is the president of the county's AFL-CIO chapter and the business manager for the local electrical worker's union, IBEW 654.

In a letter to the editor submitted to the Delaware County Daily Times, a local resident wrote that Mullen "could not be more of a special interest activist" and that "Harrisburg is already controlled by special interest groups."

His conservative critics also point out that Mullen endorsed Democrats in the past, including U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak (who represented the state's 7th congressional district), U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, and President Obama.

In mid-June, Lisa Esler announced that she would launch a write-in campaign to challenge Mullen and Krueger-Braneky. In addition to criticizing Mullen's record, she also expressed concern with the nominating process. In a press conference, Esler observed that the GOP's Facebook page declared Mullen to be the candidate before the official selection meeting began.

Esler serves on the local Penn Delco school board, a position she claims has allowed her to witness the growing power of the federal and state governments – especially in the area of education. Esler is

critical of the Common Core standards adopted by the state (later re-named "PA Core Standards"). She is also critical of the power of teachers unions and supports "paycheck protection" that would end the practice of deducting union dues from the paychecks of government employees and teachers.

This summer, Esler is hoping to muster the same bipartisan support that helped her secure her seat on the school board in 2015, when she received 1,273 votes on the Republican ballot and 425 votes on the Democratic ballot.

Esler founded the Delaware County Patriots in 2010. Since then, she has sought to reform the GOP from the inside, advocating for more inclusiveness, diversity, and openness in how the county's party committee makes its decisions.

"Basically, what we believe is that the primary should be open for the constituents of Delaware County to decide who would be the best candidate, and not be picked by the (Republican) Party machine," she said in 2010 while running for a spot on the party's committee in the 161st District.

Now, Esler finds herself trying to push the party to the right from the outside with her write-in campaign.

While such campaigns have typically not fared well in Pennsylvania, that changed in March 2014, when tea party candidate Scott Wagner won a special election with a write-in campaign to represent the 28th State Senate District in York County.

Wagner defeated Democratic nominee Linda Small and Republican incumbent Ron Miller, who was favored by the Pennsylvania Senate Republican Campaign Committee.

The date for the upcoming special elections across the state was determined by Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai. It is likely that this mid-summer date was strategically chosen: there are approximately 5,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the district. This slight edge might have guided his decision not to delay the election until November, when turnout is often higher and races are more competitive.

The election will cost the state approximately $70,000.

Image: Lisa Esler, write-in candidate for Pennsylvania's 161st House District

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