WASHINGTON – In what promises to be a neck-and-neck election thriller, Republican Rep. George Gekas is fighting the toughest re-election race yet in his more than 20 years of virtually stress-free campaigning in Pennsylvania's capital city and mountainous, industrial outskirts.
Fellow incumbent, Democratic Rep. Tim Holden, 45, is using his age as a selling point in the re-mapped 17th District, and is getting the reaction he hoped for, being credited with running an energetic and aggressive campaign that he hopes will displace the 72-year-old dean of the Pennsylvania delegation.
"Congressman Holden is a younger, more energetic campaigner and is going at it with all he has -- it has taken the Republicans by surprise," said Nathan Gonzales of The Rothenberg Report, which has listed the race as a toss up, tilting Democrat. "The problem is, Congressman Gekas has not run a competitive race in 20 years."
Gekas' people scoff at such charges, asserting that the representative has been campaigning hard on a record that far surpasses the one garnered by the five-term Democrat.
"You want to talk about energetic? [Gekas] has been energetic enough to pass significant legislation," said Gekas campaign spokesman Wendell Packard, pointing to legislation that has dealt with defending the death penalty, bankruptcy reform, child advocacy issues and anti-crime initiatives.
"Congressman Holden makes a big deal about being younger and more agile, but he's only passed three bills -- and two of them were to rename post offices," Packard said.
The race has promised to be one of the closest in the country this year, an ironic turnout for state Republicans whose redistricting plan is responsible for throwing the two lawmakers in the same ring.
The plan made the 17th District more Republican and includes 60 percent of Gekas' old turf.
Holden’s Schuylkill County-based 6th District was carved up and merged into two different existing districts, with 40 percent going into the new 17th.
Holden chose to run against Gekas, the third-ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, even though his Democrat opponent in 2000 lost by 44 percent.
"Yes, there are more registered Republicans here, but they are moderate, they’re looking for someone who is open-minded and who is going to tackle the issues as they come to them, compared to George Gekas, who has been basically a rubber-stamper for the party for the last 20 years," Holden said.
Holden, a self-described "conservative Democrat," said he is more in touch with the economic issues confronting the district, including a decline in manufacturing and coal production. He said he opposed foreign trade policies like NAFTA and permanent trade relations with China.
Gekas, however, said Holden's description of himself as a "conservative Democrat" and Gekas as a "corporate shill" are both false.
He noted that Holden voted against President Bush's $1.35 trillion tax cut and opposes ending the estate tax on inheritances.
"If I voted yes to cutting taxes and he voted no, did he cast a conservative vote? No," Gekas said. "If he says he’s independent, he can't be conservative -- you can't have it both ways."
Gekas said that Holden, with the support of big labor backers, has tried to brand him in the last several weeks.
"The first ad run in this race was run by the AFL-CIO … they called me a 'job killer,'" he said. "Ever since then, they've equated me with [Enron CEO] Ken Lay or O.J Simpson. Now that's nasty."
Holden, on the other hand, said all of the negativity comes from Gekas' corner.
"I'm very disappointed in this race -- this isn't the George Gekas I know," Holden said, noting Gekas' support from the conservative United Seniors Association. "The majority of his mailings have been negative, or downright lies."
No public, independent polls have been released on the race, but Campaigns & Elections Oddsmaker just downgraded Gekas’ chances to 50 percent from 52 percent on Sept. 30, making this race a true "dead heat."
"I like them both, and it's been very difficult for us, seeing two men who we all like thrown in together," said Rep. Phil English, R-Pa.
While withholding any criticism of Holden, English said he is backing Gekas.
"He has been a force in the House since the 1980s and a strong voice on the Judiciary Committee," English said. "I think Gekas is going to pull this off."
Friend Rep. Joe Hoeffel, D-Pa., is not so sure.
"I think Tim has surprised everybody," he said. "He's a perfect fit for this district."