U.S. Rep. Tim Holden, the most senior member of Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation, has been knocked out of office by a Democratic primary challenger who hails from a part of the state Holden had not represented at all during his 20 years in the House.
Matt Cartwright, a personal injury attorney and political newcomer from outside Scranton, defeated Holden on Tuesday to win the Democratic nomination in the redrawn 17th Congressional District, which includes a significant portion of Northampton County.
The general election in November will now be a race between Cartwright – who attacked Holden for having a voting record not progressive enough for most Democrats – and Scranton Tea Party founder Laureen Cummings, who was the only Republican on the primary ballot.
Holden is a member of the so-called Blue Dog Democrats, a group of Democrats that is generally more socially and economically conservative than other party members.
Holden called Cartwright to concede the race before 11 p.m. and, in his televised concession speech, the congressman called on his supporters to back the new party champion.
“He deserves our commitment,” Holden said. “He deserves our support.”
In his televised victory speech, Cartwright thanked Holden for “his service to our country.”
Cartwright proved to be the more popular candidate in the Northampton County portion of the district, where he beat Holden by 10 percent, a 500-vote margin.
The 17th now includes Easton and a sliver of the city of Bethlehem, along with Palmer, Forks, Upper Nazareth and Bethlehem townships and the borough of Nazareth. All of these places had previously been in Charlie Dent’s 15th Congressional District.
Both Holden and Cartwright had campaign offices in Easton. Holden visited Northampton County no less than five times.
When Holden was first elected to Congress in 1992, it was the 6th Congressional District that he represented. The 6th at that time was basically a two-county seat representing Berks County and Holden’s home Schuylkill County.
Holden was nearly forced out of office during the 2002 redistricting when the traditional 6th District was eliminated and Schuylkill County was made a part of the Harrisburg-based 17th Congressional District where Republican George Gekas was a 10-term incumbent. But Holden scored a stunning upset.
This year, the 17th District was shifted to the north and east. Harrisburg and points west were removed. Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and parts of Carbon, Monroe and Northampton counties were added, forcing Holden to again campaign in parts of the state where voters did not know him.
In a twist of irony, this time the incumbent Democrat was in a district that was more Democratic-leaning, but this time, he could not survive.
On Tuesday, the incumbent made stops in each of the six counties in the new district. In Northampton County, that meant his second visit to Josie's New York Deli in Easton, where he met with Mayor Sal Panto and school board member Frank Pintabone.
"I've had to introduce myself to a lot of voters," Holden told reporters.
He acknowledged that the campaign between him and Cartwright had gotten ugly, but argued "All I did was react."
(Easton Editor Tom Coombe contributed to this story.)