A Peek Behind the Curtain

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

Primary elections are the vehicle by which voters select their party’s nominees who then advance to the General Election to do battle with the opposing party. But, before voters even go to the polls the field has often already been narrowed by the party endorsement process or through pressure exerted on candidates to either drop out or enter the race. Then a wide range of special interests engage to influence the election’s outcome.

Many Pennsylvanians are unaware that the respective party caucuses in the General Assembly exert a significant amount of influence over who gets elected to that body, sometimes even more influence than the general voting public. Each of the four caucuses – senate Republican, senate Democrat, house Republican and house Democrat – have their own campaign committees which assist candidates seeking election to their respective chamber.

Party endorsements are widely publicized and touted by the candidates’ receiving them. But the heavy hand of the caucus campaign committees is less noticed, and often operates below the radar screen of both the news media and voters. The caucus campaign committees to varying degrees work to nominate in primaries the candidates of their choice, typically candidates expected to vote the way leadership wants after taking office. Some, like the house Republican Campaign Committee, take a relatively hands-off approach in open seat primaries, but do engage to help retain incumbents.

For decades the most successful caucus campaign committee has been that of senate Republicans which has resulted in long-term GOP domination of the upper chamber. Senate Republican leadership has, however, engaged much more aggressively than its house counterparts in determining who gets their party’s nomination. This has resulted in far less autonomy for individual senators and contributed to the fact the senate GOP has in recent years become out-of-step with the party’s conservative base, the house GOP and even their own governor.

But times are changing and the old way of doing business is not as effective as it once was. Much like voters are rejecting endorsements by the political parties, voters are proving to be less willing to go along with having their state Senate nominees selected in the backroom. In fact, the senate GOP leadership’s refusal to accept and adapt to this change in voter attitudes is on the verge of costing the party its long-term hold on the senate majority.

Last year Republicans lost three seats in the state senate, two in districts that should have been relatively safe for the party’s candidates. In all three instances the Senate Republican Campaign Committee (SRRC) exerted considerable influence over the nomination process. In Dauphin and Erie counties their preferred selections prevailed, but lost in the General Election. In Allegheny County the caucus’s hand-pick candidate engaged in a highly negative campaign only to lose the nomination and in the process mortally wound the eventual nominee. As a result, the GOP majority in the senate has fallen from 30-20 to 27-23. Democrats are eying a take-over in 2014.

Senate Republicans are now at a crossroads. Three state senators have announced their retirements – all Republicans. One seat, in York County, is a safe GOP seat. But, local businessman and prolific conservative donor Scott Wagner has announced his candidacy. He is outspoken, articulate, and has the personal wealth to outspend the SRCC. Senate Republican leaders would prefer a more malleable nominee, but must decide whether to pour upwards of a million dollars in the primary to defeat Wagner, or save the money to defend vulnerable seats in the Philadelphia suburbs, and to focus on districts where there are pick-up opportunities.

Smart politics would be to let the candidates compete freely for the GOP nomination in each district and have the caucus campaign committees save their money and spend it on defeating Democrats in November. The question is, will Senate Republican leadership realize its old way of doing business no longer works and adapt, or will they continue on a path that could lead to the first Democratic majority in the state in nearly two decades?

(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)

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