You would think that with Pennsylvania’s Republican roots, which have run especially deep over the last several decades, freshman Democratic senator Bob Casey would be vulnerable in 2012.
You would be wrong, and the reason is simple civics. Incumbents don’t lose unless they’re challenged by viable, first-tier candidates, as the Senate elections in Nevada and Alaska proved. And, as of now, there are none to challenge Casey. Whether that changes in the next year is anyone’s guess, but the mere fact that the GOP finds itself in this position speaks volumes about how it builds its "bench." Translation: it doesn’t.
Pennsylvania’s Republican power was on full display when Ronald Reagan chose three cabinet officials not just from the same state, but the same county! Montgomery County produced Drew Lewis (who fired the striking air traffic controllers), Alexander Haig, and Richard Schweiker. Since then, it’s been all downhill for the Montco GOP, with infighting and strife resulting in minority status in the state’s third largest county.
In 1994, Pennsylvania could boast that it was the most Republican state in the nation. The GOP controlled the two U.S. Senate seats, the Governorship, both chambers of the state legislature, all the statewide row offices, and a majority in the congressional delegation. But the Party lost its way, and, by running untenable candidates, gave up huge chunks of the political landscape — all reasons the state hasn’t voted Republican in a presidential election in what will be, at the minimum, a quarter-century.
In a resurgence that culminated last month, however, the Keystone State was one of the epicenters of the GOP political wave. Five Congressional seats flipped, Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett became Governor by trouncing Democrat Dan Onorato by 10 points, the State Senate stayed firmly Republican, and the State House, which had been Democratic, saw an almost incomprehensible thirteen seats move to the GOP, giving them a 10-seat majority.
And yet, with all that momentum, there is no first-tier, "go-to" frontrunner candidate to challenge Casey.
Why? Because much more often than not, the GOP has chosen its candidates not on merit — as in, who can best defeat the Democratic opponent — but instead, on whose "turn" it is. In the mold of choosing Bob Dole and John McCain, Pennsylvania’s nominees may look great to party insiders, but fare dismally when put before the voters. Just look at the last several elections for governor, treasurer and auditor general.
And because there has been little effort to groom candidates for the future, and absolutely no effort to stop the hemorrhaging from Philadelphia, where Republican statewide candidates routinely face half-a-million vote deficits, the party is now in the strange position of sitting on massive gains, but potentially passing on the Casey seat.
The subject of that race was one of the hot topics discussed at last weekend’s Pennsylvania Society gathering in New York, the annual event in which the state’s premier political and business elite exchange thoughts, predictions and gossip, most of which has no basis in reality.
To cut through the insider-speak, Freindly Fire turned to longtime Pennsylvania political observer Michael O’Connell for his thoughts on how the GOP got itself into its current position, and what it could do to be viable in 2012 — when there will be races for U.S. Senate, Attorney General (which has never been held by a Democrat), State Treasurer, and Auditor General (an open seat).
"Pennsylvania Republicans are at a generational turnover, just as they were in the late seventies. There is scarcely any bench of obvious statewide candidates, although there are any number of talented Republicans holding office. The next several years will see more than a few of them try to make the always difficult transition from the General Assembly or local office to the big time."
Depending on the speed and efficiency of GOP Party-building efforts, made infinitely easier after the recent gains, several quality candidates may arise from the ranks, but currently, the field is weak, and the list short. Following is a brief analysis:
Second-tier: Congressman Jim Gerlach, who has defied the odds by winning in the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008. But Gerlach will be under pressure to not vacate the seat, as 2012 will be a tougher year for the GOP. And given that he is now back in the majority, how realistic is it that Gerlach will leave an almost-sure thing for a difficult race in which the odds are not in his favor? Slim.
Third-tier: State Senators Jake Corman and Kim Ward. Both are well-respected legislators, but are completely unknown outside their districts. Given that neither represents a large population center, they would have to show a remarkable ability to raise money in order to increase name recognition statewide — not an easy task, since federal rules limit contributions to $2400, a far cry from the state level where there is no limit.
"Both are prototypes of what I mentioned," O’Connell stated. "Talented players in offices largely out of the public eye, who will have to demonstrate that they can move on to a brutally difficult statewide contest. There is no training school for that— it is a credential one only earns by running and winning a race."
Often-mentioned but no virtually chance: Congressman Charlie Dent. Dent was reelected by a wide margin, and will clearly enjoy serving in the majority, which is exactly where he’ll stay for one simple reason: he is pro-abortion, and in Pennsylvania Republican primaries, that’s a killer. The only remote shot Dent would have is to be part of a five or six candidate field, with all his opponents splitting the pro-life vote. Otherwise, he’s not going anywhere.
There are wild cards, to be sure. Former congressmen Phil English and Melissa Hart, while neither has publicly expressed intent, would match up well with Casey. Both of these seasoned pols hail from western Pennsylvania (compared to Casey’s northeast base) and both served effectively in Democratic-leaning districts, though they lost tough races in the Democratic waves of 2008 and 2006, respectively. But don’t count on either one taking up the challenge.
Interestingly, perhaps the candidate with the best chance for victory would be a self-funding businessman. Instead of carrying the baggage of an easily-distorted voting record, a charismatic business leader could engage the voters with the only record anyone really cares about: how many jobs he created, how his budgets were managed, and the innovative solutions he implemented to solve problems in the face of economic adversity.
Since more and more people think government should be run like a business, operating within the same constraints as the private sector, such a platform could prove endearing. And while there are the pitfalls of self-financing (he’s "buying" the election), the alternative is far more appealing: he’s beholden to no one, especially the special interests.
An individual who fits that description is John Moran of Moran Logistics, who continues to create jobs due to his involvement in the booming Marcellus Shale natural gas industry. While Moran recently stated he was not in the running (after his name was anonymously floated), the significant buzz created over just a few days demonstrated two things: the appealing nature of the no-nonsense businessman candidate, and the almost complete lack of a traditional candidate bench.
Both parties should recognize that their Business-As-Usual approach to selecting candidates needs an overhaul, especially given the fiscal calamity in which we find our nation and state.
For the Republicans at least, that model may well be to run law-and-order candidates with a proven track record of rooting out corruption and taking the tough stands, regardless of the political fallout.
The results speak for themselves: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a ever-rising national star, is a former United States Attorney, as are newly elected congressmen Pat Meehan of Delaware County (who won by 11 points) and Tom Marino of northeast Pennsylvania (10-point margin), who unseated a well-funded and popular incumbent. Montgomery County State Representative-elect Todd Stephens, a former Assistant District Attorney, took down entrenched incumbent Rick Taylor, and of course, state Attorney General Tom Corbett, who successfully prosecuted many powerful Harrisburg insiders, ruled the day.
Of note was the fate of John Perzel, longtime Philadelphia State Representative and former uber-Speaker of the House, who was the only Republican to lose in the biggest GOP wave since 1946. Law of averages? Bad luck? Hardly. Instead, his loss centered around the 82-count indictment he is facing — a case brought about by Corbett.
The message is clear. Voters know they stand on the precipice, and feel the candidates best suited to clean up the political mess are not the ones whose "turn" it is, but those who have demonstrated the ability to create jobs and put bad guys in jail.
The path has been blazed. The question is: can the Republican hierarchy finally read the road sign to success?
Chris Freind is an independent columnist, television commentator, and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com. Readers of his column, "Freindly Fire," hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller "Catastrophe." Freind, whose column appears nationally in Newsmax, also serves as a guest commentator on Philadelphia-area talk radio shows, and makes numerous other television and radio appearances, most notably on FOX. He can be reached at [email protected].