A state legislator still paying off fines to the state’s ethics commission learned this week a primary challenger will attempt to unseat him in 2020.
Glenn Yoder, the long-time president of the Eastern Lancaster County School Board, announced he’ll run against fellow Republican state Rep. David Zimmerman in the northeastern Lancaster County district including New Holland, Ephrata and Gap.
In overwhelmingly Republican state House districts in the county such as Zimmerman’s 99th, which has historically been out of reach for Democrats, the GOP primary essentially serves as the election; winners are almost always guaranteed victory in November.
But even before primary voters cast a single ballot, decisions are being made behind closed doors that, in many cases, determine the nominee —and often the victor — on Election Day.
This process is especially notable as Zimmerman enters another election season while still paying off $6,000 in fines owed to the state ethics commission for using his earlier position as a township supervisor to advance a land deal in which he and his brother had a financial stake. The state commission’s executive director, Robert Caruso, told LNP that in his 36 years at the commission, he’d never seen anything like it.
Last year, Zimmerman and his wife were slapped by East Earl Township officials for renting out a suite of their home without proper permits.
The rare intraparty challenge to a sitting Republican lawmaker casts new light on the closed-door process of endorsing a candidate and places a crucial decision before 19 elected members of the Eastern Lancaster County Republican Committee: Issue their stamp of approval to a damaged incumbent or start anew by granting their much-coveted party endorsement to a newcomer.
“The party historically has had a lot of power,” said Kyle Kopko, a political science professor at Elizabethtown College and member of the Elizabethtown Republican Committee. “Whoever gets (the party’s) support has a significant advantage.”
Straw polls and influence
Hunter Tower, the executive director of the Republican Committee of Lancaster County, confirmed Friday night that both Yoder and Zimmerman submitted letters of intent. The notification kicks off a sprint to a finish that is only weeks away.
On Jan. 22, GOP committee members from local committees in the Eastern Lancaster County School District — which falls within the 99th House District — will cast informal, nonbinding votes for which candidate they prefer. The straw poll is seen as a bellwether for how a candidate would fare in the endorsement convention, and the county GOP considers the results the following week.
The fundamental role of political party committees is recruiting, vetting and endorsing candidates for local and state offices from school board to state legislator to Congress. The party almost always endorses candidates, bringing support to the chosen candidate. The unendorsed candidate almost always declines to proceed for fear of burning bridges with the county’s dominant political party.
Although at least one other local race will have a contested primary —Brad Witmer, a Landisville truck driver is once again mounting a primary challenge to Rep. Brett Miller, R-East Hempfield — the match-up between Yoder and Zimmerman will set the stage for what could be one of the most closely watched local races in the primary. The next few weeks could determine who represents 99th District voters in 2021.
What happens if committee members endorse the challenger? That outcome would be a stunning rebuke of an incumbent, one that hasn’t happened since 2006, when prominent incumbents were ousted by voters angered by a hefty middle-of-the night pay raise.
The dozens of committee members across the county are elected officials who do the real ground work in local political parties. Each precinct has two members — a man and a woman — who serve local committees, which are organized by school district, plus the county committee. They’re often the people standing outside polling places with the party’s sample ballot.
Several members of the Eastern Lancaster County Committee said it’s too early to say who they may support.
“I will certainly let the process do what it’s meant to do,” said Tim Bender, a New Holland Borough precinct committeeman. “I’m certainly not casting a vote talking to you here today. Our district is blessed over the many years to have been served by really good people prior to Dave (Zimmerman), as well as Dave, who has certainly been committed in his role.”
To some, like Bender and Committeewoman Mary Alice Sensenig, it was a surprise to learn Yoder was throwing his hat in the race. Others, like Sheldon Hoover, a committeeman in Earl Township’s Martindale District, said he thought it might happen.
“I had my suspicions,” Hoover said. “I had an idea that he may, but I had never ever talked with him about it.”
Risks of challenging
None of the committee members LNP spoke with were overly concerned with Zimmerman’s past ethics violations. But they said they weren’t too informed on exactly what they were, either.
Challengers don’t usually step up unless an incumbent “votes a certain way, or it may offend a group of folks in the district,” said G. Terry Madonna, the director of Franklin & Marshall College’s Center for Politics and Public Affairs.
“The Pennsylvania Legislature has been known, for — gee, a century — to have any number of people who get themselves in legal difficulty in one kind of another,” Madonna added.
And typically, despite misgivings voters may have about an incumbent, party members will support an incumbent “unless there’s a real reason,” Madonna said.
Madonna said the question becomes: Are Republicans in the east standing firm for Zimmerman, or are they moving away from him?
Candidates who perform poorly in the straw poll may abandon their bids but don’t have to and can still get on the ballot with enough signatures submitted to the state Board of Elections.
In some rare instances, the party chooses not to support any candidate, leaving it an open primary. But if the straw poll goes well for either candidate, the one who comes out on top can expect to face little serious opposition, if any, in the primary.
An endorsement is more than just a stamp of approval. It opens up access to money from local and county committees to see them through to the finish line, Kopko said. And it adds more people to knock on doors and run phone banks.
“It is a very important advantage to have,” he added.