The announcement that Rep. Charlie Dent, R-PA., is going to retire in May has thrown Pennsylvania politics into chaos. With Dent gone, the race will be on to see who replaces him for the few months before the regular election in November.
The reason for this chaos can be best summed up in the statement released by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf shortly after Dent's announcement. After praising the Republican congressman for being "approachable" and for having "always put his constituents above partisan politics," Wolf suggested that there would be a special election to replace Dent — meaning that the 15th district, which after the November contest will be redrawn into the 7th district, will have a new congressman for a period of only a few months.
"Once Governor Wolf receives an official resignation notice with an exact date, he will make a formal decision regarding scheduling the date of a special election," the statement explained. It added that the state's election code "requires the governor to issue a writ when the vacancy occurs during a session of Congress or if the vacancy occurs at a time when Congress shall be required to meet any time prior to the next general election. The governor must issue the writ within 10 days of the vacancy to set the special election date. The date of the election must not be sooner than 60 days after the governor issues the writ."
Local Republicans are not pleased about a potentially costly and competitive special election, even if it runs concurrently with this fall's midterm election.
"I had called on him [Charlie Dent] to tell the truth months ago," Tom Carroll, the chairman of the Bethlehem Republican City Committee and vice chair of the Lehigh Valley Tea Party, told Salon. "I had heard that he was going to be resigning to set up a special election so that he could manipulate who would win because the party rules in special elections are different than just in a normal primary. He was confronted [by] numerous sources and said he wasn't going to resign. So, once again, he has not told the truth. I find him quite honestly reprehensible at this point. I say, 'Good riddance.'"
He added, "I think it's disgusting that he's done this in a way that now we're forced to have a special election prior to a general election coming up. He's costing taxpayers money, if that's the way it goes."
Matthew Munsey, the chairman of the Northampton County Democratic Party, speculated that the special election may simply wind up containing the same candidates who are currently running to replace Dent in the soon-to-be-formed 7th district in November.
"We're four weeks away from the primary election, and I don't see either party picking a candidate before the primary. I don't think that would happen. I don't know what the timeline would be, but it just seems unlikely," Munsey told Salon.
He added, "At this point, we would let the primary play out and whoever wins the primary. It makes sense to run in the special election, because it really doesn't make much sense to run a lame duck for a seat that they would at best hold for six months."
Rick Daugherty, former chairman of the Lehigh County Democratic Party and Dent's opponent in both the 2012 and 2016 elections, told Salon that he has no plans to run for the newly opened seat. "I would not be a candidate for the special election. Well, I would have to give up my job for a job that is a six or seven-month assignment, so I'd rather focus my efforts on the general election so I could serve a full term."
Dean Browning, one of the Republicans seeking the party's nomination to run when the 15th district soon becomes the 7th district, had similar thoughts.
"That has yet to be determined," Browning told Salon, when asked about whether he would want to run in the special election to replace Dent. "It depends on the date of the special election. I'm not quite sure I understand the reason or the rationale for Rep. Dent stepping down now. It seems to be adding further to the confusion that voters will have to deal with when sorting out who they want to vote for Congress."
That said, Browning was unsure if Dent's motive for stepping down was to force the party to choose a replacement to his liking.
"At this point, I think it is pointless to speculate on his reasons or rationale for doing what he did. I'm at a loss to explain it myself," Browning told Salon, adding that it "could be something completely different that none of us are thinking about or even aware of."
In explaining why he was stepping down, Dent emphasized a desire to spend more time with his family.
"After discussions with my family and careful reflection, I have decided to leave Congress in the coming weeks. Serving the people of the 15th Congressional district has been a tremendous responsibility and the privilege of a lifetime, and I am honored by the trust that so many of my constituents placed in me to represent them in Washington," Dent explained in a statement.
He added, "I am especially proud of the work I have done to give voice to the sensible center in our country that is often overlooked or ignored. It is my intention to continue to aggressively advocate for responsible governance and pragmatic solutions in the coming years."
The final section of Dent's statement — wherein he discusses "the sensible center in our country" and calls for "responsible governance and pragmatic solutions" to America's problems — echoes the reasons he gave for announcing that he would retire from his seat back in September.
"Accomplishing the most basic fundamental tasks of governance is becoming far too difficult. It shouldn’t be, but that’s reality," Dent told The Washington Post at the time.
Dent would later point the finger at President Donald Trump, telling CNN in December that "I would say the President was a factor, but not the factor for me deciding to leave." He later added that while "the party of the President typically loses 32 seats in a situation like this," the situation was different with Trump "because he's a very polarizing figure, and so I suspect our challenges will be even greater just because of that."
If nothing else, Dent's unexpected retirement and the subsequent special election will guarantee that Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley — a swing district in a swing state that has already received considerable attention in the 2018 midterm elections — is bound to find itself in the spotlight again.
Just a lot sooner than anyone — except for Dent and his confidantes — expected.