By Ali Carey, Contributing Writer
Newtown Square — Five GOP Senate hopefuls took questions on Thursday night from members of the Delaware County Patriots tea party.
It’s the biggest event yet in a race with nearly a dozen prospective Republican challengers to incumbent U.S. Senator Bob Casey, and the first event to feature two of the race’s top tier candidates: Steve Welch and Sam Rohrer.
Scranton-area tea party activist Laureen Cummings, Bedford pharmacist and one-time 2010 candidate John Kesinger, Harrisburg-area attorney and former Santorum staffer Marc Scaringi, and Welch, an entrepreneur and former congressional candidate attended as planned.
Making a surprise appearance was Rohrer, whose spokesperson had earlier indicated that he would miss the event. After months of hinting, the former PA state legislator from Berks County and a 2010 gubernatorial candidate will officially announce his candidacy in a town hall meeting on Monday. He recently stepped down as the PA State Director of Americans for Prosperity to declare his candidacy.
About 150 people came to hear the debate, which lasted about 2 hours. It was the first meeting of several of the candidates, and the second official forum event of the campaign. The first, held in September near Pittsburgh, featured only Scaringi and retired Colonel John Vernon.
Moderator Kevin Kelly, a Republican entrepreneur from Philadelphia and a former fighter-pilot., told the candidates to adhere to a four sentence rule: after four sentences the candidates could only keep talking if the audience appeared interested in hearing more.
The economy was the first issue the candidates tackled, which sparked a conversation about Keynesian, Hayek and Austrian School theories of economics.
Welch underscored that the federal government needs to take lessons from the failed economies of other nations and from the private sector.
“We’re witnessing western sovereign democracies fall apart. What you’re seeing in Greece, we’re not far behind. We’re about to see Spain and Italy fall apart at the seams and I think that’s important to this election,” said Welch.
On economic philosophy Welch described himself as fundamentally a decentralist. He touted his experience in his first company “beating the crap out of GE,” as an example of small businesses being “the engine that’s driving this country.”
Experiencing the effects of the tough economy first-hand is what motivated Cummings to run for public office.
“I got involved in politics because it affected me, my patients and my family. I watched patients go from having a large sum of money in the bank to nothing and ending up going into a nursing home for medical assistance patients,” she said.
Kensinger who has no advisers and takes credit for everything on his website, “typos and all” received a warm applause when he quoted American founding father James Madison and the original intentions of the separation of church and state. He criticized the government for eliminating moral and Christian values.
“We’ve had an erosion of Christian values in the United States,” said Kensigner.
The candidates agreed on the issues Kelly presented for the most part. The audience question and answer segment revealed some of the candidates’ conflicting positions.
On the subject of term limits, Kensinger, Scaringi and Welch all said they would support South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint’s Term Limit’s for All Constitutional Amendment which would impose term limits on all members of Congress (3 terms in the House, 2 in the Senate).
Cummings and Rohrer said they would oppose the amendment.
Scaringi talked about the the dangers of going to Washington with the intention of building a career there. He believes being in Washington for too long can make you feel important and it can impact your ability to serve.
“I don’t want to stay there forever. I want to come home to my wife and my family and my business and my neighbors and my church and my community. That’s where my heart is and where I want to be. This is something that I do reluctantly. I look at this as a duty that I have to do because of the crisis confronting our country,” he said.
Although Rohrer acknowledged Scaringi’s explanation for term limits, the former nine-term state Rep. said he does not believe that a constitutional amendment is the answer to every problem that we have.
“I don’t believe our founders built into the system term limits. In fact they didn’t. They called them elections,” said Rohrer.
Rohrer went on to say that the balance of power was “messed up” when the Senate positions were changed from being appointed to publicly elected.
“The public made a lot changes last year in Congress, but it didn’t require a term limit to do that. What it did require was an activated citizen base who understood what was at stake,” said Rohrer.
When asked how they would defeat Casey, Welch emphasized that the Senator has voted with the President 98 percent of the time. He said that Pa. Republicans need a candidate who has the necessary funds and can deliver their message.
Welch avoided any serious confrontations about his brief switch to the Democratic Party and 2008 primary vote for Barack Obama. He volunteered an explanation, saying it was a “protest” of the Republican party but that he voted for John McCain in the general election.
An audience member asked Welch about his other foray into Democratic politics: his $300 contribution to Joe Sestak’s 2006 congressional race – a sore subject in a room full of people who voted for Curt Weldon.
“Joe Sestak sat in my house and talked about being a fiscally conservative individual. In 2006 that was his scheme. You’ll remember that’s what he ran on, but he clearly was not and so I was the first one who stood up and said, ‘I’m going to run against Joe Sestak,’” which he did, briefly, last cycle.
Although she wouldn’t name a winner, Delco Patriots organizer Scheerer was encouraged by the debate and she is looking forward to covering the candidates further.
Commenting on the breadth of informed questions the crowd asked, Scheerer said:
“That’s why we’re members and that’s why we came. We’re informed and interested.”
How They Did
Rohrer’s political ascension coincided with the rise of the tea party movement, and has maintained his talent for talking to them. He was comfortable with the crowd tonight and presented himself well, though he frequently pushed the limits of the four sentence rule.
Welch had the most to lose Thursday night, but he proved that he can speak the language of tea party activists and is comfortable with their issues. His answers were concise and on point. He has the explanation for his party switch down, and it seemed to assuage the audience.
Scaringi held his own in the debate, and his nearly 12 months of campaigning have served him well. However, given his fundraising stagnation, appearances like this are likely to be the only campaign tools he has. He didn’t deliver a standout performance.
Cummings and Kensinger may have been the most ideologically in sync with the audience, but they were mostly overlooked in the question and answer session. They did not distinguish themselves on Thursday.
Rohrer and Welch won the night.
Keegan Gibson contributed to this report.