|"Does Welch's loss give Corbett a political black eye?"
April 26, 2012
Minutes after declaring victory in Pennsylvania Republicans' divisive, five-way Senate primary, Tom Smith brushed off questions about his ability to reunite his party.
"There's no doubt in my mind that we will all come together," the former Armstrong County coal executive told a crowd Tuesday night in Pittsburgh. "It's what primaries are all about - sorting things out."
The trouble is, Republicans across the state said Wednesday, Smith's upstart victory leaves things more unsorted than ever. Indeed, Tuesday proved a bumpy night for both parties' elders.
With no backing from the state Republican establishment or its top elected officials, Smith, 64, nonetheless soundly stomped GOP-endorsed candidate Steve Welch.
And after arm-twisting by Gov. Corbett earlier this year to rally his party behind the Malvern businessman, many senior Republicans are questioning whether the governor misspent his political capital.
"I think the governor got some bad advice and took it on the chin," said Bruce L. Castor Jr., a Montgomery County commissioner. "My guess is that he's looking hard at whoever gave it to him and whatever advice they're continuing to give him."
Welch managed only a middle-of-the-pack finish in the five-way race, taking 21 percent of the vote, compared with Smith's 40 percent. Former State Rep. Sam Rohrer, of Berks County, secured second place, thanks in large part to his past name recognition and a fervent group of grassroots, tea-party-aligned supporters.
Welch campaign manager Peter Towey credited Smith's victory to the nearly $5 million of his own money he poured into the race and to his early success in defining himself as the "true conservative" (despite a past as a Democrat) in a contest where all five candidates - like their counterparts in the presidential nomination fight - appealed to the GOP's ideological "base" by running to the right.
"It used to be that the most important word before a Republican candidates name was endorsed," Delaware County GOP Chairman Andrew J. Reilly said. "Now, it's conservative."
But while Republicans on Wednesday largely agreed that their party would eventually rally behind Smith in his bid to defeat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr. this fall, they split on whether Welch's loss amounted to a political black eye for Corbett.
Brian Nutt, a GOP consultant and Corbett's top campaign adviser, balked at the implication.
Corbett "suggested who he thought would be the best team to continue Republican successes," Nutt said. "The bottom line is, the governor wasn't running the race. And I personally don't know what he could have, or should have, done more or less of."
Others were less forgiving - and less willing to be quoted by name.
"I don't think he gets it," said one longtime Republican staffer in the Capitol, pointing out that Corbett had barely been visible on the primary campaign trail. "Being governor is more than just saying, 'I support this.' It's about making a case and explaining why what you want is necessary."
Not making the case for Welch: that, Corbett's GOP detractors said, was what sparked a near-revolt in January at the state Republican committee's endorsement conference in Hershey. At the time, six candidates were seeking the party's blessing in the race, though none had emerged as a clear front-runner. Several delegates suggested that the party forgo endorsing altogether.
But days before the meeting, Corbett came out for Welch, who at 35 was an impressive young Chester County entrepreneur who was largely unknown upstate. Faced with resistance from within, the governor wheedled and cajoled right up to minutes before the endorsement vote - even going so far as to personally lobby individual delegates in conference center hallways.
It was a departure for the famously low-profile Corbett, who until then had appeared hesitant to embrace his position as titular head of the party, said Reilly. That, of course, was in stark contrast to the relish applied to party work by Corbett's Democratic predecessor in the governor's mansion.
Ed Rendell seemed to love nothing more than wading into a crowd during campaign season, whether stumping for himself or an ally. A relentless fund-raiser, he generally spread his money around to others' races, lending his face to mailings and television ads, his voice to robo-calls. And win or lose, he was ubiquitous on election day, often summoning reporters to debate his party's results.
In an interview Wednesday, Rendell said a governor must party-build - by raising money, supporting candidates, and settling intra-party squabbles. Still, he said, "there is no one size that fits all."
The less-garrulous Corbett is likely to recover from any damage suffered in Welch's loss, said veteran Republican strategist Charlie Gerow. The more lasting injury, Gerow said, is to the clout of party establishments.
Voters in both parties tossed out incumbents in a handful of legislative races in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and in Blair and Lackawanna counties.
And while neither contender seeking the Democratic nomination for state attorney general had an official party endorsement, former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy of Bucks County was backed by some of the state's top Democratic luminaries, including Rendell and Philadelphia party leader Bob Brady. Yet, he lost to Kathleen Kane, a political newcomer.
Historically, state party endorsements have offered two concrete advantages to candidates: money and organizational support. But as Gerow said, Tuesday's vote demonstrated that such party-bestowed blessings don't necessarily carry their old cachet - especially in the GOP Senate race.
Smith's campaign, fueled with his own money, used advertising and organization to brand Welch as a previous supporter of President Obama. And Rohrer, with his eager band of grassroots supporters, managed to outrun Welch in fund-raising.
Traditionally, the Republican state committee's stamp of approval in January served to clear the field. Unendorsed candidates politely bowed out, sparing the GOP from messy primary fights and allowing party loyalists to rally around one candidate from the get-go. Not this year.
Smith's success and Rohrer's strong showing will likely encourage future GOP candidates to think twice before deferentially dropping out, Gerow predicted. And that could unsettle Republican primary races for years to come.
"It throws a big question mark over the future," he said.
But Chester County's Republican chairman, Val DiGiorgio, sees that uncertainty as a potential strength. He said the party's newly emboldened conservative wing was bound to bring excitement and lively conflict with the more moderate wing.
"We're going through some growing pains now as we integrate," DiGiorgio said. "And I think you'll continue to see some of that for a while. But in the end, I think it makes us stronger."