Seven months ago Pennsylvania’s Republican gubernatorial primary election looked considerably different than it does today. Attorney General Tom Corbett was preparing to square off with former U.S. Attorney and Fumo-slayer Patrick Meehan. It was looking like a battle of the hard-charging, no-nonsense uber-prosecutors for the GOP nod.
A group of party insiders from western Pennsylvania co-signed a letter asking that Meehan bow out of the race and join Corbett on a brokered ticket. Such an arranged marriage, it was claimed, would keep Corbett from having to spend money while preventing a primary battle.
In a PATownHall.com column on June 15, 2009, I called upon Pennsylvania GOP leaders to rescind their efforts to forge a brokered ticket and support an open primary. I wrote at the time: "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 of competition for business, education, and trade is just as committed to it internally."
I’d like to think the same holds true today as only the faces in the race have changed in the last seven months. Corbett remains in the race as the front runner. Meehan has bowed out to run for Congress. State Rep. Sam Rohrer has entered the race while Congressman Jim Gerlach has both entered and exited the contest.
State party leaders continue their efforts to anoint Corbett and prevent the primary voters from making the ultimate decision. Following Gerlach’s departure from the race, Republican State Chairman Rob Gleason suggested on Jan. 8 in the Philadelphia Inquirer that Corbett should forgo a primary battle. "He [Corbett] doesn’t need a primary," said Gleason, noting that Corbett can now "marshal his resources" for the fall campaign.
Is it not alarming that the state chairman is publicly supporting Corbett before Republican State Committee (RSC) has made an endorsement decision? Furthermore, Gleason’s premise rejects the notion that putting a candidate’s troops in the field early and taking their message to their party’s voters in January instead of June makes a nominee better and stronger. Second, it denies Pennsylvania’s 3.1 million Republicans the ability to choose nominees without having them selected on their behalf by the state chairman and a small group of insiders at RSC.
RSC’s effort to coronate Corbett in lieu of an open primary neglects recent political history in Pennsylvania. First, pundits like to believe that candidates like Corbett are best situated for November elections because they are from Allegheny County. However, recent history tells another tale.
Republicans Lynn Swann (2006), Mike Fisher (2002), and Barbara Hafer (1990) were all nominated out of Allegheny County and were all soundly defeated by their Democratic opponents. Democrats nominated State Rep. Ivan Itkin in the 1998 gubernatorial contest and he was beaten badly by Tom Ridge.
Twenty years of state political history prove that the steady, reliable Allegheny County candidate is a myth. One would have to go back to Dick Thornburgh’s successful races in 1978 and 1982 to find a triumphant gubernatorial nominee from Allegheny County. Even so, in 1978 Thornburgh defeated Allegheny County Democrat Pete Flaherty in a race that an Allegheny County candidate was guaranteed to win. His 1982 reelection bid against Lycoming County’s Allen Ertel was a slim 100,000 vote victory.
Second, RSC’s clearing of the primary election field tends to be a harbinger of bad news for the eventual nominee. The state party dissuaded the competent Bill Scranton from running in 2006 and handed the nomination to the hapless Lynn Swann, a candidate who couldn’t be bothered to vote in 20 of the 36 elections prior to his own candidacy. The result was Swann’s unmerciful drumming by Ed Rendell. The state party badgered state Treasurer Barbara Hafer out of the 2002 primary and handed the nomination to Attorney General Mike Fisher who lost to Rendell.
Pennsylvania Republicans ought to use the 1994 nominating contest as a model for 2010. Bill Clinton and overreaching Congressional Democrats had alienated the middle class and independent swing voters. The economy was sputtering. The time was right for a Republican resurgence. Sound familiar?
Instead of a brokered primary, Republican voters were treated to a rousing contest between Tom Ridge, Sam Katz, Ernie Preate, and Mike Fisher. The competitive primary made Tom Ridge a stronger, successful candidate against Mark Singel. The same occurred in 1994 for Rick Santorum, who faced a primary for U.S. Senate from Joe Watkins and went on to defeat Harris Wofford.
Looking at the national political picture, 2010 is much like 1994 and promises to be better for Republicans than 2008 or 1992. Before crowning Corbett and deterring competition, Gleason and RSC should realize that the nomination of an Allegheny County candidate is not a sure bet and that a spirited, open primary contest can only increase the eventual nominee’s preparedness.
Republican State Committee is slated to meet Feb. 12-13 to consider endorsing candidates for U.S. Senate, Governor, and Lt. Governor. Those who wish to repeat the mistakes of 2002 and 2006 ought to recall the Spirit of ’94 when the party had a tough primary and was better off as a result. After all, history is clear: when primary elections are bossed, general elections are lost.
Nathan R. Shrader is the former Political Director of the Westmoreland County Republican Committee. He has worked on over 20 political campaigns and currently resides in Philadelphia. He can be reached through is web page at www.NathanShrader.com