But GOP’s SEPA Caucus Declines Vote
By Keegan Gibson, Managing Editor
King of Prussia — Governor Tom Corbett called southeast Pennsylvania GOP leaders Wednesday afternoon to ask for their support for U.S. Senate hopeful Steve Welch, several county chairmen and Republican state committee members told PoliticsPA.
It follows weeks of speculation over who, if anyone, Corbett would support in the crowded primary.
But his decision to back Welch – made the same day as the southeast Pa. caucus meeting – was too fast for many state committee members in the region. The caucus declined to hold a straw poll vote during their meeting Wednesday night.
If they had weighed in so closely to the Governor’s decision, said Chester County chairman Val DiGiorgio, it would look too much like the caucus was a rubber stamp.
“We have to respect the integrity of the process,” he said, and take more time to consider.
“It’s too early,” agreed Delaware County chairman Andy Reilly. He said Wednesday night’s meeting was the first time the caucus got to hear from all of the candidates.
Over a dozen state committee members PoliticsPA interviewed confirmed Corbett’s support for Welch. Many believe it is, in part, a peace offering from the Governor.
Last week, Corbett effectively pushed John Rafferty, a Pa. State Senator from Montgomery County, out of the Attorney General primary. He made known his support for Rafferty’s opponent, Cumberland County District Attorney Dave Freed. Several committee members, particularly those from Montco, bristled at that choice – and at the last-minute nature of the Governor’s U.S. Senate decision. (The AG kerfuffle followed a few years of bad blood between Corbett and Rafferty). They felt that a native son and a promising statewide candidate from SEPA was blocked from competing for the endorsement.
In exchange, the thinking goes, Corbett decided he would throw his support behind another SEPA candidate: Welch, an entrepreneur and former congressional candidate from Chester County.
But while Rafferty has been around the block and come up through the party in SEPA, Welch is a relative newcomer. Many don’t see it as a fair trade. Chief in that camp is Montco Chairman and Rafferty ally Bob Kerns. His delegation had threatened to boycott any vote Wednesday evening.
Kerns declined to comment.
Side note: some Rafferty supporters, apparently Republicans disaffected by Corbett’s decision, launched a website encouraging Rafferty to run for AG as an independent.
It also did not go unnoticed that each of the Governor’s three picks so far (Freed,
John Maher for Auditor General, and Diana Irey for Treasurer) are clients of Brabender-Cox, a consulting firm that employs longtime Corbett aide and 2010 campaign manager Brian Nutt. Welch would be number four.
Correction: Maher tells PoliticsPA he is not a client of Brabender-Cox.
However, an arranged marriage is still a marriage. If Corbett continues his push for Welch, it will most likely yield a state committee endorsement on January 28. Most of the SEPA crowd will fall in line with Corbett, if not out of love for Welch (though there was considerable talk about the possibility of an open primary).
“He’s the leader of the party,” said PAGOP Chairman Rob Gleason said of Corbett. “He gets it. He came up through the committee process.”
Will the Guv’s choice carry the committee?
“Probably,” Gleason said confidently.
Party leaders are keen to endorse someone they believe can defeat former coal company owner Tom Smith in the primary, because they see Smith as too inexperienced a candidate to take on Senator Bob Casey. They know they need to coalesce around one person sooner than later; Smith reported $4.4 million cash on hand, and it would be difficult for any candidate to compete without the full resources of the state party.
The two most electable candidates, they believe, are Welch and Tim Burns, a businessman and former congressional candidate from Washington County. PoliticsPA reported last Saturday about the emerging Burns v. Welch dynamic; Welch’s campaign has been handing out anti-Burns fliers, and Burns spent some of his speech at Wednesday’s SEPA meeting blasting Welch directly.
The candidates travel next to the sizable southwest and northwest caucuses – home territory for Burns and Smith – where Burns will have his last opportunity for a statement win in time for state committee.
Odds and ends:
Burns said the battle was not about the endorsement, but against Casey and Obama, reiterating that it would be almost impossible for him to run against an endorsement. He laid into Welch, saying “When times were tough, when George W. Bush was unpopular, Steve Welch ran from the Republican Party.”
Welch has clearly had practice answering those charges, and for good reason: the subject dominated the question and answer portion of his remarks. He said when he switched – at age 28 – from GOP to Dem, it was in protest of the GOP’s lack of conservative direction despite controlling the White House, Senate and House.
“At no point was I a Barack Obama supporter,” he said, saying his infamous vote for Obama in the 2008 primary was motivated by a fear of “Hillarycare.”
He parried a question from the audience – and from this reporter – about the Governor’s endorsement. “I’d love to have the support of Tom Corbett, Pat Toomey,” he said, but, “I don’t think either one is public on where they are.”
He, too, implied that he would not run against an endorsement.
Tom Smith gave a fairly well-delivered, boilerplate speech about the economy and reiterated his intent to stay in the race all the way until primary day. He subtly inoculated himself against criticisms that he was a registered Democrat until August by noting that Ronald Reagan was a union guy and a Dem before he became President.
The buzz was that Smith made some headway with the Montco delegation.
After the no-vote was declared, Smith’s camp spun the decision as a loss for Welch.
“We commend the Republican State Committee members of the Southeast Caucus for tonight taking a bold step to suggest that that this process should play out, and that voters should have the opportunity to select the strongest candidate to defeat Senator Casey in the fall,” said Smith for campaign manager Jim Conroy. “This unprecedented action in Steve Welch’s home caucus certainly demonstrates a lack of support for his candidacy.”
David Christian delivered passionate remarks and had the highest high moments of any speaker, including a Welch punchline that he cribbed re: Casey’s 98% record of voting with Obama – something like, spouses and children don’t agree that often!
Outsiders Sam Rohrer and Marc Scaringi performed well, but SEPA caucus members are the insiders’ insiders. It wasn’t their crowd.