Epic Battles No. 10: Two close calls for Gordner in '03 and '04
John Gordner is now serving his third full term as state senator for the 27th District, but, early on, winning (and keeping) the office didn't come easily. He had to battle fellow Republicans twice within a seven-month period, and came perilously close to losing both times.
Republicans already anticipated a wide-open battle to succeed Edward Helfrick, the state senator since 1981, who had made no secret of the fact that he didn't plan to run again in 2004. In addition to Gordner, there were at least four other prominent Republicans with senatorial aspirations. They were Chuck Erdman, Northumberland County controller; George O. Wagner, of Riverside, former Montour County district attorney and unsuccessful Northumberland County judicial candidate in 1995; Dr. Wayne Miller, Shamokin physician, and Elizabethville Mayor Mike Brown.
To the surprise of almost everyone, Helfrick resigned suddenly in August 2003 and immediately endorsed Gordner to succeed him. Helfrick's decision rankled many organization Republicans since Gordner was elected to the state House as a Democrat in 1991 and only decided to switch parties in 2001. He had been re-elected to his House seat after the switch, however.
The nomination for the special election was decided by a party conference composed of 48 prominent Republicans from throughout the 27th District. Although Erdman had the support of the 18 conferees from Northumberland County, he lost the second ballot to Gordner, 25 to 23 votes.
In the November special election, Gordner easily defeated a fellow Columbian Countian, former state Rep, Kent Shelhamer and Reform Party candidate Bob Pyle, of Mount Pleasant Mills. But, practically at once, the Republican primary campaign of 2004 was under way.
After losing the 2003 conference vote, Erdman vowed to run in the 2004 Senate primary anyway, but, in the end, he didn't. Miller and Wagner did become candidates, but political observers believed that Gordner, a seasoned campaigner and now an incumbent, would have an easy time.
That's because they underestimated Miller, an unconventional candidate who appealed to Republican voters who were tired of government - and politics - as usual. The widely respected physician conducted a campaign that stressed values issues and fiscal responsibility, and his candidacy attracted support from large numbers of people from throughout Northumberland County. Miller promised to donate his first year's legislative salary to Area Agencies on Aging throughout the district. A full-page newspaper advertisement contained the names of hundreds of supporters, the vast majority of whom were people who didn't usually take active roles in political campaigns, except for voting.
The campaign grew more tense as election day approached, with the Gordner and Miller trading charges about mailings and press releases. Gordner had the scare of his life on election night. In the early hours of the morning, he led Miller by only 600 votes, although that lead widened a bit later. Wagner finished far behind.
Miller led Gordner by a 2-to-1 margin in Northumberland County, and Gordner owed his win, in large part, to voters in his native Columbia County, who supported him by an overwhelming margin.
In November 2004, Gordner went on to defeat Democratic candidate John Boback, who had served for the last six months of 2003 as an appointed county commissioner. Gordner was re-elected in 2008 and 2012.