Epic Battles No. 22: Culver wins 'big name' primary
Merle Phillips was state representative in the heavily Republican 108th House District for 30 years, and he was unbeatable. No one in either party had any chance of unseating him; no Republicans attempted it, and few Democrats even tried.
When Phillips announced he would not seek re-election in 2010, Republicans in the Sunbury-based district knew a window of opportunity had opened, albeit a very narrow one. Whoever became the 2010 Republican nominee for the House seat would have an excellent chance of following in Phillips' footsteps, with the potential to win election after election effortlessly.
For some, the most obvious choice was Chuck Erdman, who was then serving his fourth term as Northumberland County controller. Erdman was long known to have legislative ambitions. In fact, he very much wanted to succeed Ed Helfrick in the state Senate. But when Helfrick retired in 2003 with more than one year to go in his term, Republican conferees in the multi-county senatorial district picked John Gordner instead to run in the special election.
Interestingly, Sam Deitrick also announced his candidacy despite the fact that he was defeated for re-election as Northumberland County commissioner just three years earlier. But Deitrick had enjoyed a political comeback of sorts in 2009 by being elected jury commissioner. There was also a name recognition factor. Deitrick was a fourth-generation member of one of the county's most prominent political families. Not only were his father and grandfather also county commissioners, his grandfather was a state senator and his father ran (in 1972) for the Senate but lost.
In addition to the two "name" candidates, there was a third GOP aspirant. Although Lynda Schlegel Culver couldn't boast the impressive electoral history of Erdman and Deitrick, she nevertheless enjoyed an insurmountable asset. Because she was Phillips' legislative aide for 21 years, Culver was well known throughout the district and, most importantly, she had the backing of Phillips himself.
On election night, few were surprised when Culver won the GOP nomination. She beat Erdman by less than 400 votes (3,464 to 3,089), with Deitrick receiving only 766.
The real race was between Culver and Erdman all along, but the outcome probably would have been the same if Deitrick hadn't been in the race.
As expected, Culver went on to beat Democrat Antonio Michetti in November. She was re-elected in 2012.
The 2010 primary was Erdman's last campaign in Northumberland County. He resigned as county controller in early 2011 to accept a job in the state Department of Revenue, and has since relocated to the Harrisburg area,