A Tale of Two Parties

Columnist : L. Henry

PA GOP splits along ideological lines

Pennsylvania’s Republican Party has enjoyed a long dominance in statewide politics that may be about to come to an end.  The seeds of this potential meltdown are rooted in the fact that the Keystone State GOP has actually become two parties: a Teddy Roosevelt-style liberal wing that believes in big government and Reagan conservative wing that holds dear the principles of lower taxes and less government.

For the past 20 years the two wings of the Pennsylvania GOP have co-existed and dominated statewide politics. They were united in the common goal of defeating Democrats.  On paper Republicans control both houses of the General Assembly.  In fact, a coalition of Democrats and liberal Republicans holds sway.

This has resulted in conservatives no longer see any difference between Democrats and liberal wing of their own party. Thus, having helped build the Republican Party into majority status, conservative voters now appear willing to return it to its minority position in order to restore the party’s ideological underpinnings.

The liberal wing of the party is unable to cope with the shifting sands.  What else could explain the incoherent ramblings of House Speaker John Perzel in continued defense of the pay raise, or the passage of a state budget containing a record increase in spending by a Republican-controlled General Assembly?

The biggest problem for GOP liberals is that, at its core, the Pennsylvania Republican Party has become a strongly conservative one.  Talk to virtually any “man on the street” Republican and you find widespread adherence to the core principles of the party.  Republicans have won elections espousing those principles for a reason – people believe in them, revere them, and actually expect their elected officials to reflect them.

But that is not happening.  So unrest among the grassroots has been building.  It started two years ago when Congressman Pat Toomey came within a percentage point of unseating long-time liberal U.S. Senator Arlen Specter.  Anger over profligate spending, tax increases, slot machines and other issues created a powder keg of voter animosity.  And year’s pay jacking was the lit match that caused the powder keg to explode.

In the wake of the “political earthquake” that shook the state’s political establishment in the primary look for the schism between factions of the Pennsylvania GOP to get deeper and wider.  U.S. Senator Rick Santorum is trailing in his race for re-election in part because of soft support from moderate to liberal Republicans.  A Santorum loss will further stoke conservative anger.

The GOP could also lose control of the state House of Representatives.  Fury over the pay raise (still supported by Speaker John Perzel), coupled with anger over the record spending increase contained in the new state budget has cast in stone the split between conservative voters and legislative leadership.

Without a GOP governor there is no leader with the stature to bring the two sides back together.  Further, there is no institution capable of doing so.  The Republican State Committee completely discredited itself by backing loser insiders in the recent primary, sending its own membership into open rebellion.  Conservatives, who came to the realization years ago the formal party machinery didn’t represent them, have been busy building an entire infrastructure of their own.

As a result there is an institutionalized split in the Pennsylvania Republican Party.  The old style liberals are unwilling to change their ways, and the conservatives are no longer willing to prop them up with their votes.  All of this adds up to a likely period of Democrat resurgence.  That is regrettable, but such an outcome is assured when greed and a personal lust for power supplants the core principles that unite a political movement.  The upside is it creates the opportunity to rebuild a party that is actually in tune with the voters it is supposed to represent.