GOP Brass Should Welcome Gubernatorial Primary

Member Group : Nathan Shrader

It has become apparent in recent days that certain members of the Pennsylvania Republican Party’s upper brass are doing whatever they can to reduce the likelihood of a contested gubernatorial primary in 2010. While party leadership seems to think the surest route to the Governor’s Mansion is with a brokered ticket, it is doubtful that such a thing is best for the struggling state party.

Several western Pennsylvania GOP officials have voiced support in recent days for placing both potential gubernatorial candidates together on a ticket, making Attorney General Tom Corbett (Allegheny) the candidate for Governor and former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan (Delaware) the nominee for Lieutenant Governor. The group calling for this brokered ticket thus far includes former Allegheny County Executive and current County Chairman Jim Roddey, Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey, and state Senator Kim Ward of Westmoreland County.

Let me begin by making one thing perfectly clear: I like and respect both Mr. Corbett and Mr. Meehan and am not supporting either one of them at this time. Both seem to be fine public servants and would make wonderful gubernatorial candidates. Both have records of prosecuting politically corrupt leeches as Corbett did with the scandal-ridden House Democratic Caucus and as Mr. Meehan did with disgraced state Senator Vince Fumo, a.k.a., "The Vince of Darkness." Personally, I will remain uncommitted at the moment since time still remains for other qualified, capable Republican candidates to declare for the governor’s race.

Forging a brokered ticket at the expense of a primary will not help the PA GOP rebuild and rebrand itself. It also seems to suggest that Corbett should lead the ticket simply because he is from western Pennsylvania. Such a "deal" should be insulting to an accomplished man such as Meehan, especially considering his own résumé and that Pennsylvania’s electoral strength has shifted east.

Why can’t we allow both of these highly qualified candidates compete in a primary that will help the GOP address three critical problems and let the chips fall where they may?

First, the party must overcome its recent string of electoral defeats We have lost two straight gubernatorial races, were decimated in the 2006 U.S. Senate race, lost the Third, Fourth, Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth District Congressional District seats all within four years time, dropped the 2008 races for State Treasurer and Auditor General, and failed to win the 2007 Supreme Court race.

Second, it must compensate for its plunging party registration numbers. In Oct. 2008, Pennlive.com noted that Democrats in the state saw an "increase of more than 500,000 new voters, or 13 percent, in the past year. Republicans saw their ranks shrink slightly by about 28,000 or 1 percent." These numbers are even worse in Philadelphia and her suburbs, where Democrats have added to their numbers significantly in Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks, and Chester Counties in the last five years.

Finally, the party must rebuild after driving two of its most successful officeholders in the last three decades into the Democratic column. Former State Treasurer Barbara Hafer, after much mistreatment by the party despite years of loyal service, defected in 2003 and Senator Arlen Specter defected to the Democrats this year after being dressed down by Chairman Gleason and a host of other party dignitaries. Perhaps Republican officials have not yet realized that Hafer and Specter knew how to win elections in Pennsylvania, unlike some of the recent campaigns noted above.

Overcoming electoral defeats, making up for declining registered voters, and rebuilding after high profile defections will not be aided by a ticket built by party leadership. Such things will best be accomplished by contested primaries for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and U.S. Senate in 2010 that will allow Republican candidates to compete for primary votes rather than force-feeding voters a brokered ticket at the expense of competition.

Republicans are always talking competition. Competitive trade is good. Schools need to compete with each other to improve. Government shouldn’t compete with the private sector. Competition between private companies should be allowed to flourish. We are comfortable talking about competition in the public policy realm, so why are so many key party leaders interested in seeing electoral competition within the party dashed against the rocks?

Recent electoral history shows us that statewide candidates in both parties are better served by having competitive primaries in which they are able to test and tune their messages, put their teams in the field, and allow the primary voters to decide who best represents their interests and values heading into November.

Take for example the relentless efforts made in 2002 by Republican State Committee officials to get then-State Treasurer Hafer out of the GOP gubernatorial primary. Hafer was pressured to get out and Mike Fisher was nominated without the opportunity to put his troops on the battlefield in the early days of the campaign. Meanwhile, Democrats Ed Rendell and Bob Casey, Jr. slugged it out in a grueling primary battle that allowed the winner—Rendell—to sharpen his ability to campaign statewide, raise money early, and put together a campaign team in 2001 rather than in May 2002. The result: Rendell routed Fisher and Hafer left the party, handing another state row office to the Democrats.

Another example is the 2006 primary contest when former Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton was talked out of the race by party officials who wanted a clear shot at the nomination for novice Lynn Swann. The result was Swann getting a free pass in the primaries and then getting thumped in November because he had no message and no real reason to be in the race.

In the early days of the 2010 gubernatorial fight, it is important for Pat Meehan, Tom Corbett, and any other potential candidates (same goes for the Democrats) to remain in the fight, give primary voters a reason to get involved, and show that the party which extols the virtues competition for business, education, and trade is just as committed to it internally.

Nathan Shrader is a member of the Westmoreland County Republican Committee. He can be reached at [email protected]