HUNTINGDON - The closely-fought race for the 81st District state House seat appears set to continue to November, with write-in challenger Richard Irvin taking the Republican nomination and Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, staging a narrow surprise win on the Democratic ticket.
Over three counties, the final tally stood in Irvin's favor 3,600 to 3,396 among Republicans and in Fleck's favor 902 to 887 among Democrats, who lacked an official candidate and wrote in their preferences.
While Irvin - the Huntingdon County treasurer who was knocked off the ballot in April - gathered enough Republican supporters to trounce Fleck in his home county and beat him throughout the district, both candidates fought for Democratic support that would seal a May win. District Democrats favored Fleck by a thin 15-vote margin.
Fleck said he intends to continue his fall "do-over" campaign as a Democrat, although he said he wouldn't switch parties for the long run if re-elected.
"I still believe in the Republican Party. I still consider myself a moderate," Fleck said Tuesday, noting that a party switch would force him to start at the bottom of the caucus seniority ladder after four terms in office.
Irvin did not return a message seeking comment.
The surprise primary result is set to carry the campaign, already beset by months of accusations and counter-accusations, into another phase. Fleck, who came out as gay in 2012, has accused his opponents of riling up antigay sentiment and involving hateful outside groups; Irvin has denied the suggestion, arguing that Fleck cites alleged bigotry to ignore political issues.
While Fleck said he's avoided negative campaigning and doesn't want to start, he hinted that the election might take a more personal turn before November.
"Mr. Irvin has portrayed himself as Mr. Family Man," Fleck said. "I'm not going to get down and dirty, but a lot of people are setting the record straight on that."
With the one-party race now featuring both parties, previously uninvolved outside groups could take an interest.
Fleck has raised about $100,000, much of it from political action committees and groups affiliated with interest groups, according to finance reports. While Irvin has said he would refuse money from political action committees, pressure groups outside his control might step up involvement on Irvin's behalf, Fleck noted.
It could be a tough fight for anyone on the ballot as a Democrat. The district is overwhelmingly conservative, with its core county, Huntingdon, containing nearly 16,000 registered Republicans to 9,000 Democrats and fewer than 3,000 independents or third-party members.
On Tuesday, Fleck pointed to another problem he could face: If many voters oppose him for his sexual orientation, as he has claimed, Democrats might be no more forgiving than Republicans. Addressing Democratic acquaintances who've argued that he should switch to their party for its stance on gay rights, he reminds them that he nearly lost their primary vote, as well.
He can also expect opposition from some fellow Republicans.
On Sunday, Fleck criticized state Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., who backed Irvin in the primary, for saying Fleck wouldn't have faced his recent troubles if "he had just gone about his business and people thought he was a homosexual or heterosexual or whatever."
While the two Republican lawmakers have maintained a professional relationship, Fleck said Tuesday: "The gloves are sort of coming off."
Eichelberger insisted that he doesn't bear any personal prejudice against Fleck or gay people, arguing that past statements have been misinterpreted. A commonly cited 2009 quote that "we're allowing them to exist" - sometimes interpreted as a reference to gay people in general - was in reference to relationships, not people's lives, he said.
"I always considered Mike a friend. I understand he's going through a painful time right now, and he's trying to blame people," Eichelberger said. "I don't know why he's angry with me. I guess he's angry with everyone."
Facing opposition from colleagues and from Irvin's grassroots campaign, Fleck has to prove he's a strong Republican even as he runs from the other side.
"Would a Democrat win in a Republican district? No," Fleck said. "But I think enough people know that I'm a Republican. I have no intention of changing."