Hollywood couldn’t have scripted the drama any better in the GOP’s nomination race for Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District.
Try to follow along:
Four-term incumbent Jim Gerlach tells the world — repeatedly — that he would NOT seek re-election, opting instead to jump into the gubernatorial fray.
Based on Gerlach’s word, popular Chester County State Representative Curt Schroder announces he would seek the GOP nomination for the open seat, raising nearly $200,000 in just a few months. Based on political sources close to the race, he was clearly on the path to the Chester County endorsement. (Chesco accounts for a majority of the district, which also includes parts of Montgomery and Berks counties).
But in September of 2009, a wrench is thrown into the mix. After running in another congressional district for half a year, self-funding 33-year old millionaire Steve Welch bows to pressure from Party bosses, quitting his effort in the 7th Congressional District (CD) to make way for former gubernatorial candidate Pat Meehan, long a favorite of the Delco Machine. He then jumps into the 6th CD race, despite the fact that he does not live in that district.
After the New Year, Schroder, Welch, and several lower-tier candidates kick their campaigns into full gear, only to be shell shocked to learn that Jim Gerlach has changed his mind once again, and would be running for Congress after all.
Are you getting all of this?
Rep. Schroder, sensing fundraising difficulties if he chose to oppose the incumbent, begrudgingly dropped out of the race. Welch, with his ample funds, is still vying for the nomination.
So where does the race stand?
It’s anyone’s guess.
Over the last month, several straw polls of Chester County committee people provide a startling picture of the volatility in the Republican ranks. Gerlach received less than 60% of the vote in the first round, and only slightly more the following week. Given that these committee folks are the same ones who will vote to endorse a candidate at their convention this Saturday, Feb. 20th, (where 60% is necessary to earn the endorsement), and they have known the incumbent for well over a decade, many eyebrows have been raised. There is a growing sentiment that perhaps an election is in order — not a coronation.
Both candidates have major political baggage which makes the outcome of both the May primary and November general election far from certain.
Congressman Jim Gerlach
In a typical election year, the power and resources of incumbency trump most challengers, particularly in a primary. But 2010 is shaping up to be an explosive year where anything can happen, and no scenario is off the table.
That said, Gerlach retains the upper hand at this point. His name recognition is vastly superior to that of newcomer Welch, and his brand, for now, is still largely a positive one.
Remember that for the last eight years, Gerlach’s opponents and well-funded special interests have spent a fortune — a conservative estimate is well over $10 million — painting the congressman as a far-right-wing conservative Republican out of touch with the 6th District. Since Pennsylvania’s GOP primary is a closed one, meaning only Republicans can vote in it, that label is not a bad one to have.
Combine that with Gerlach’s proven ability to win general elections in otherwise horrid years for Republicans (2006 and 2008), and it’s hard to argue with conventional wisdom that the incumbent will once again triumph.
But things have changed, and Gerlach is carrying some new negatives which could prove decisive in the primary—and perhaps the general.
For starters, the campaign is broke. Since Gerlach’s warchest was transferred to help fund his failed gubernatorial bid, the congressional campaign had only $5,000 cash on hand as of just a few weeks ago, although staffers claim they have commitments for several hundred thousand dollars.
Against a typical opponent, the lack of funds at this point might not be a huge issue. But against a self-funder like Welch, who has already pumped in over $500,000 of his own fortune and has $650,000 cash on hand — with millions more if he needs it—, the lack of a significant warchest should be disconcerting to Gerlach.
On the issues, Gerlach will have to deal with conservatives’ wrath because of his voting record in a number of hot-button areas. The Congressman voted in favor of TARP (the first major bailout), the Medicare Prescription Drug program, commonly described as one of the largest expansion of welfare benefits in U.S. history, and Cash for Clunkers, while major increases in the deficit and national debt occurred on his watch. And here’s the kicker for many fiscal conservatives: much of this spending took place while Republicans were in charge of the House, Senate and White House.
If Gerlach can be tied into the "Business As Usual" crowd that is "part of the problem," with voters believing that it shouldn’t just be an anti-Democrat year but an anti-incumbent one, he could be the recipient of a severe voter backlash.
But the one issue above all that could doom Gerlach is his support for Card Check, the bill proposed by labor unions that, among other provisions, would eliminate the secret ballot in union elections. Card Check is such a make-or-break topic for a huge number of Republicans that this issue alone could be enough to topple an incumbent.
According to the AFL-CIO website, Gerlach, along with former GOP colleagues Curt Weldon and Mike Fitzpatrick, all signed on as sponsors of Card Check in 2006. However, the Gerlach campaign denies that he favors Card Check, pointing to his vote in 2007 against the bill.
But in this environment, playing coy and stretching the truth could put an incumbent on the unemployment line very quickly.
The reality is that these three Republicans played games in 2005 and 2006, deciding to take both sides. Figuring that the GOP would be in power for decades (a woefully short-sighted outlook), Gerlach and Company thought that they could appease Big Labor by signing onto a bill that would never see the light of day.
Which was correct, for about another year, until Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats were swept into power.
His 2007 vote against Card Check has done little to mollify conservatives, who continue to think Gerlach’s heart leans toward Labor.
Despite meaningless polls showing Gerlach with a sizable lead over his unknown opponent, the potential of millions being unleashed on the 6th District Republicans in the coming weeks by Steve Welch, combined with many who are still fuming because of Gerlach’s broken word on retiring from Congress and backstabbing Curt Schroder, makes this race not just far from over, but one that hasn’t even begun.
New to the political scene, Welch comes to the table with the most important weapon in campaigns: money. After selling his successful bio-tech company for a large sum, he decided on a foray into politics as his next professional move.
For six months, he ran unopposed in the 7th District, where Democratic incumbent Joe Sestak is not seeking re-election. Instead, Sestak is challenging Arlen Specter for U.S. Senate. The open seat became quite attractive for Pat Meehan, whose gubernatorial bid never got off the ground.
It’s here that Welch’s baggage began to pile up.
After repeatedly stating that he would remain in the 7th District race, even against a Meehan challenge, Welch yielded to Party pressure and abandoned the race. His decision to change his sights to the 6th District, even though he was not a resident, was viewed by many as a failure in his first real test of independence. Instead of standing by his principles, he caved in to the Delaware and Chester County party bosses.
The carpet-bagger issue was so difficult to overcome that Welch moved into the 6th District several months ago.
And even though the residency issue has been resolved, Welch continues to feel Republican wrath on a number of other issues.
First, he played loose with the truth when he claimed to have raised more than $250,000, when public records showed that number to be only $50,000. It’s one thing to slightly round up fundraising numbers, but such a huge discrepancy rubbed many the wrong way. This was the kind of doublespeak that voters have come to expect from Congress.
(NOTE: In all likelihood, Gerlach did the same thing. After claiming he had raised $1 million in the governor’s race, campaign finance disclosures put that number at a quarter million dollars less.)
Much more detrimental to Welch, though, is his Democratic past —the very recent past. Many GOP activists are having a difficult time reconciling how Welch can be part of the solution for the Republican Party when he:
A) Gave money to Democrat Joe Sestak. And Sestak is no ordinary Democrat, but one of the few who can make Arlen Specter look conservative.
B) Registered as a Democrat in 2006, and remained a D through the 2008 election, switching back to the GOP before running for Congress.
C) Admitted voting for Barack Obama in the 2008 primary election.
Given these facts, it’s a tough sell for Welch to claim he is a "lifelong" Republican.
While money doesn’t solve everything, it keeps one in the game. Whether or not Welch’s funds can alleviate his major negatives remains to be seen.
If he is able to make a strong showing at the nominating convention, and makes Jim Gerlach the issue for why a change is needed, he remains a serious threat to the incumbent.
But the $64,000 question is whether committee people and the Republican voters of the 6th District will:
A) determine that Gerlach is damaged goods and needs to go, and
B) if Steve Welch, with his Democratic ties, is the answer.
For those looking for another option, chew on this possibility:
What if, at this week’s convention, a committee person decides that enough is enough with candidates whose veracity and judgment are seriously flawed, and nominates a candidate with a solid Republican track record? Someone with the credentials and experience necessary to represent the 6th District better than the current field?
What if someone nominates State Representative Curt Schroder?
He may yet have the support of the committee, and could, at the very least, deny the endorsement to Gerlach or Welch.
Crazy? Sure— in most election years. But so was the unthinkable result in Massachusetts with Scott Brown’s victory.
This is 2010. Change is already upon us, and the rising tide may yet turn into a raging tsunami.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and investigative reporter whose news site, The Artorius News Bureau, is slated to launch in this month. Readers of "Freindly Fire" hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. Freind also serves as a weekly guest commentator on a Philadelphia-area talk radio show, WCHE, and makes numerous other television and radio appearances. He can be reached at [email protected]