WILLIAMSPORT — State Rep. Fred Keller won the Republican nomination in a special GOP vote Saturday to fill outgoing U.S. Rep. Tom Marino’s seat, paving the way for the first Snyder County resident in modern history to serve in Congress.

Keller, a five-term state legislator from Kreamer, secured 113 of the 202 ballots cast by GOP delegates during the special vote to elect a nominee for the 12th Congressional District seat Marino is leaving due to health problems.

“I am honored and humbled,” Keller said after clinching the nomination from a field of 14 candidates after a six-hour convention held at Farrington Place in Williamsport. “The campaign starts now. We need someone in Washington with pragmatic and conservative principles.”

He is heavily favored to win the May 21 primary for the seat in the predominately Republican district. His challenger is Center County Democrat Mark Friedenberg who lost to Marino in the 2018 general election.

“I’m pleased that the Republican party was able to hold a civil democratic convention to nominate Mr. Keller, and that each candidate had the chance to have his or her voice heard. Now I hope that Mr. Keller, though a longtime politician, will give the rest of our district a chance to learn what we each stand for,” said Friedenberg who plans to invite his challenger to a series of four debates before the primary.

Prominent and longtime Republican delegate Pat Saylor said Keller has been steadfast in his ability to garner the nomination. “Fred never wavered. I was hopeful, but am amazed,” she said.

Keller was at a disadvantage hailing from a rural part of the state with a mere 12 delegate votes, she said.

His chances improved at the start of the 9 a.m. convention when state Rep. Jeff Wheeland, R-83, of Williamsport, dropped out after allegations of spousal abuse against his first wife were raised in an email sent by his stepson to voting conferees.

Wheeland’s departure “was a big deal” for Keller’s ascension to the top of the pack, Saylor said.

The 202 voting members cast paper ballots four times, narrowing the candidates with each vote to a final three, including Bradford County Commissioner Doug McClinko and Lock Haven University professor Jessica Bowman-Hosley. Former Snyder County Commissioner Malcolm Derk was among the candidates cut in earlier rounds of voting.

“The Republican party is constantly slammed as the party of exclusion yet we were the party (with) one of the most diverse groups of candidates I’ve ever seen,” said Snyder County Commissioner and voting delegate Joe Kantz. “Fred Keller will do a great job campaigning and ultimately working for the citizens of the 12 Congressional District.”

Inside the convention hall where the votes were being cast, Marino and former U.S. Congressman Don Sherwood, who served from 1999 to 2007, mingled among the candidates and conferees.

Bradford County delegate Richard Harris was not pleased to see Marino in the hall. “Why should he get to pick the next candidate?” he said.

Marino, who announced in January his decision to leave following his re-election to a two-year term last November, said he did not endorse any candidate.

“I said from the beginning let’s let the conferees make this decision, and they did. I think they made a good decision,” he said.

Keller’s blue-collar roots — he is a former Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. employee — worked to his advantage, Marino said.

“It’s getting back to the basics,” he said. “We don’t need someone in D.C. that doesn’t know how to get dirt under their fingernails and sweat.”

Saylor credited Keller’s direct approach.

“Fred did what he always does. He went county-to-county knocking on delegates’ doors” and asking for their support, she said.

Marino’s tip to his potential successor was “be yourself and work hard. Get out there and talk to people. And listen. Listen to what people say.”

A special election will be called by Gov. Tom Wolf to fill Keller’s state seat in the 85th District if he is elected to Congress.

There were 21 candidates interested in the Republican spot on the ballot.

The number of conferees per county was based on votes for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Here is a breakdown, by county, of this weekend’s conferees: Potter: 6,251 votes, (6 conferees); Tioga: 13,614 (14); Bradford, 18,141 (18); Susquehanna, 12,891 (13); Clinton, 10,022 (10); Lycoming, 35,627 (36); Sullivan, 2,291 (2); Wyoming, 8,837 (9); Centre, 16,661 (17); Union, 10,622 (11); Northumberland, 16,279 (16); Snyder, 11,725 (12); Mifflin, 14,094 (14); Juniata, 8,273 (8); Perry, 15,616 (16) for a total of 202.