By Keegan Gibson, Managing Editor
CAMP HILL — Former State Rep. and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Sam Rohrer made his bid for U.S. Senate official yesterday in a crowded room of supporters.
Taking care not to mention his prospective opponent – incumbent Senator Bob Casey – by name, Rohrer said that the country was getting away from its constitutional and religious principles.
“We need men and women of courage,” he said. “Courage to not any longer just talk, but act. Courage to stand on principle and reject pragmatism. The courage to embrace conviction rather than convenience. The courage to fix the problem now rather the continuing to put it off on our children.”
The nine-term former lawmaker, 56, had been teasing the possibility of a run for several months.
The setting of the announcement demonstrated the strengths of his nascent campaign. On relatively short order, about 150 supporters attended his Monday rally. (So did staffers for the Pa. Democratic Party and at least one of Rohrer’s primary opponents).
Rohrer’s team of campaign consultants and staffers, many of whom are veterans of his 2010 bid, directed half a dozen cameras, computers and other equipment. Effective use of technology was another hallmark of the Rohrer for Governor effort, and he is already at the forefront of that medium in this campaign. Case in point, within five minutes of the conclusion of his remarks, the video was available on UStream.
What was unclear at the event was whether Rohrer would be able to overcome the obstacles – his insufficient fundraising, shortage of paid media and some of his more damaging votes – that held him to just 31 percent of the Republican primary vote against Tom Corbett last year.
In 2010, his number one limitation was money. Rohrer raised just $670,000 plus $42,000 carried over from his State House campaign committee. Then-Attorney General Corbett, meanwhile, had over $5 million for the primary.
Rohrer’s general consultant, Jeff Coleman of Churchill Strategies, noted that in 2010, the establishment was lined up behind Corbett and the fundraising spigot was shut off, so to speak. That’s not the case this year, he argues.
“I think you’re going to see a much broader base of support in the Senate campaign than last year with the Governor’s race. All the inherent conflicts for a lot of our conservative friends and business leaders in the state have lifted,” he said.
Rohrer recently stepped down from his position as state director of the Pennsylvania chapter of Americans for Prosperity a 501(c)(4) affiliated with the Tea Party. The national AFP organization boasts of spending $40 million boosting conservative candidates in the 2010 cycle. The campaign has high hopes of tapping the AFP resource in 2012.
He’ll need it. Primary opponent Tom Smith, a coal industry veteran and former tea party leader, has already put over $800,000 of his own money into the race. One source in his campaign called that a “small down payment.”
Washington County businessman Tim Burns and Chester County entrepreneur Steve Welch have each said that they plan to lend financial support to their campaigns.
But unlike his opponents, Rohrer starts off with a dedicated following, including among the many of the people who will run his campaign. Coleman has initially determined to take this cycle off from politics, but said he jumped back in to help Rohrer, who he called a friend and a gentleman.
Indeed, throughout his entire 35 minute remarks and the half an hour question and answer session that followed, Rohrer didn’t say Casey’s name once. He painted a picture of a country in need of a principled leader – like ultra-conservative Sens. Jim DeMint and Tom Coburn.
“More important than replacing that person,” Rohrer said, “is replacing that person with someone with the conviction and courage to lead us back to the principles of freedom.”
The room was full of the grassroots activists who fueled Rohrer’s 2010 bid – attracted to the candidate because of his strong stances against abortion and in favor of 2nd Amendment rights, as well as his career-long advocacy of a total repeal of property taxes.
However, Rohrer also has some potentially fatal votes among the thousands he cast in the state house. The most damning was his vote in favor of the infamous 2005 midnight pay raise – a 16 to 34 percent pay increase that precipitated a firestorm of voter anger. He also voted in 2001 for a plan to increase lawmaker pensions by upwards of 50 percent.
And, as an 18 year veteran of Harrisburg, Rohrer collects a $31,000 taxpayer-funded pension annually – including health benefits.
John Kennedy is a former State Rep. and the Chairman of Citizens’ Alliance for Pennsylvania, a conservative group that targets lawmaker perks. He is not affiliated with any of the GOP Senate campaigns but is supporting Smith.
“How can you sit there and collect a check every month, including free health, from a fund that’s underfunded – that’s upside down – and sooner or later mine and your real estate bills are going north because of it,” he said. “Are those the type of people we need in the Congress now?”
Other than a few broadsides from the PA GOP, like this mailer, he avoided widespread scrutiny during his 2010 bid. Corbett’s internals showed a comfortable lead, so almost all of his media dollars went to positive ads during the primary.
2012 will be much different, especially if Rohrer remains a front runner as Tuesday morning’s Public Policy Polling survey indicates. His opponents this time have every reason to publicize that part of his record.
Talking to Rohrer, it’s clear he wishes he could have those votes back.
“I made a mistake on that [the pay raise]. No one is perfect, and I never said I was. But I’ve already walked through that process last go around.”
“Being the only one who’s ever been in office, and the only one who’s ever cast a vote, people are going to gun for anything they can,” he said. “If someone takes that and tries to wail on that as an example, it will be further proof that those who do are lacking in substance and [showing] opportunism.”
As the race heats up, time will tell if his new opponents can crack Rohrer’s devoted following among the conservative rank and file.