By Keegan Gibson, Managing Editor
Harrisburg – Tim Burns, the Washington County businessman who ran for congress against Mark Critz in 2010, won a bellwether straw poll at the Saturday meeting of the Pa. Republican state committee’s central caucus.
It was a surprisingly good result for Burns and indicates that he is a contender for the endorsement of the state committee as a whole.
The final vote total in the U.S. Senate primary was Burns 32; Sam Rohrer and Steve Welch 22 each; Tom Smith 20; David Christian 2 and Marc Scaringi 1. No other candidates appeared at the meeting, or received any votes.
“I am honored to have such strong support in the Central Caucus,” said Burns in a statement. “I believe the Central Caucus membership and I both share a real concern for the problems facing our nation and our great Commonwealth today.”
Burns told PoliticsPA he’d be “hard pressed” to stay in the race if state committee endorses another candidate.
It’s an important win for Burns, who was left out of this week’s self-funding dual between Smith and Welch (Smith has loaned $5 million to his campaign, Welch has loaned $1 million).
“No one is able to completely fund their own campaign in this race,” Burns said, referring to the primary and general. “You’ve got to be able to raise money.”
Burns said he contributed over $250,000 to his congressional bid and said he’ll show more than that in the Q4 report. He noted that he has had a warm response from the national donors who boosted his congressional run. A Burns spokesperson said the campaign would release its fourth quarter numbers in the coming week; the filing deadline is Jan. 31.
The caucus meeting itself, in which each candidate delivered 5 minute introductory remarks and took questions for 5 minutes, was closed to the press. But the hallway outside the meeting room in the Harrisburg Hilton was crowded with politicos as candidates for Senate, Attorney General, Auditor General and Treasurer spoke with state committee members. At one point it appeared that there were over 30 full-time operatives and staffers for the 12 candidates present.
The 100 or so committee members and proxies debated the candidates’ merits and flaws, but almost universally agreed that electability was the top priority. Many said they thought, for the first time in a long time, there was a significant chance that the party would opt not to endorse in the primary.
Others said they want an endorsement knowing it won’t empty the field, but hoping it will narrow it.
“Probably there’ll be an endorsement,” speculated PA Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason, but said that there isn’t a front runner.
He said he wasn’t necessarily banking on the winner of the self-funding race.
“It doesn’t matter how much money they’ve raised,” Gleason said. Committee members are “looking at their ability to defeat Bob Casey.”
Each of the top four candidates was pleased with his performance, and by an large committee members agreed.
Comments were spirited and positive, said Franklin County Chairman Dwight Weidman, who cast his vote and four proxies for Smith.
Rohrer was practically shut out of that 2010 endorsement process when he challenged front runner Tom Corbett for the gubernatorial nomination, and campaigned heavily against the establishment.
He had a softer tone this time around.
“Over the past weeks I’ve been talking to state committee members, to show the respect I have for them and this process,” Rohrer said. His come county of Berks falls within the central caucus.
He hosted a reception for those members on Friday night, but he said he’d run regardless.
“Our commitment is for the long haul.”
As for fundraising, Rohrer is at a real disadvantage in a primary against three millionaires. His campaign anticipates bringing in something in the neighborhood of $120,000 for Q4. He said he isn’t discouraged and will continue to tap the network of grassroots supporters he built in 2010.
“It’s more difficult to find 10,000 donors who believe in you than to find one person who can bankroll their own race,” he said. Campaign manager Zac Moyle added that Rohrer has had productive meetings with several of the key conservative fundraising groups in Pa. and Washington DC, including those with a record of picking horses in U.S. Senate primaries.
Welch has been working as hard as anyone in the primary race; he said he’s visited 44 counties, driven over 10,000 miles so far, and attended every forum and public event in the primary. He said will hit all 67 Pa. counties by the end of January.
Though not essential, a state committee endorsement is an important part of his campaign’s victory equation. He was the first candidate to schedule a Friday night hospitality event for committee members.
Correspondingly, Welch said he would respect the endorsement process if it was “organic,” meaning one in which members have the ability to vote they way they want.
“I think it would be arrogant to think that they [state committee members] don’t know what they’re doing,” Welch said. “As long as it’s an organic process, I would respect that.”
“It’s not about Steve Welch or any other candidate,” Welch said. “It’s about defeating Bob Casey in November.”
A state committee endorsement isn’t crucial for the former coal company owner and former Tea Party leader from Armstrong County. His campaign’s ideal scenario is an open primary, where Smith’s significant resources wouldn’t have to compete with those of the state party.
“I will still run,” if the state committee endorses another candidate, Smith said. “Too many people are committed to this campaign.”
“If they endorse, fine. If they don’t endorse, fine,” he said.
Several of his staffers and consultants, who consider the primary a two-man race between Smith and Welch, claimed victory in the fact that Welch did not emerge from the meeting with front runner status.
Several committee members Scaringi gave one of, if not the best speech of the Senate candidates, but his inability to raise significant financial resources proved a deal breaker.
“Money isn’t everything, but it’s something,” said one committee person.
“Today’s straw poll result was not a surprise,” responded spokesman Randy DeSoto, noting that Scaringi has won several post-forum straw polls. “Marc has been calling for an open primary and pledged to continue running, even if he does not get the endorsement.”
At 117 members, the central region is the largest of the state committee’s caucuses and among the most diverse – stretching from Bedford County to Lancaster, and north to the New York border.
Saturday’s caucus meeting represents the first in a statewide series. Next weekend, the candidates will travel to northeast Pa. and the Lehigh Valley; the, southeast Pa.; after that, southwest and northwest Pa.; and finally state committee endorsement meeting on January 28.