By Keegan Gibson, Managing Editor
Over 750 conservative politicos gathered in the Radisson Penn Harris this weekend to talk political strategy, celebrate their 2010 victories, and catch up with friends.
It was the largest crowd they Pennsylvania Leadership Conference has ever had, and a strong counterpoint to those who think the Tea Party is a passing phase in Pennsylvania politics. Despite cancellations by Senator Pat Toomey (due to the budget), Lt. Governor Jim Cawley (personal reasons), and Presidential hopeful Herman Cain (travel problems), the spirits were high and a feeling of victory abounded.
The PLC, the annual meeting of PA’s movement conservatives, has been called Pennsylvania’s CPAC. It was PA’s Tea Party before there was a Tea Party, complete with all the tension between the Republican establishment and their activist base.
“It’s a lot like Republican State Committee,” remarked one attendee about the conference.
“Except no hacks,” quipped another.
This is the group that supported Pat Toomey over Arlen Specter in 2004 and led the charge to “throw the bums out” after the 2005 pay raise scandal. For example, conference alums and State Sens. Mike Folmer and John Eichelberger, who in 2006 challenged and unseated incumbents in the Republican leadership, were on site all weekend. And Sam Rohrer, who challenged Governor Corbett from the right for the nomination last year, was credited with forcing the Gov to take his no-tax pledge.
At the meeting this weekend there was a visible divide. Conservative activists accused establishment Republicans of selling out or compromising too easily. During a Tea Party seminar, some speakers used a tone usually reserved for Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama to describe local or state Republican committees.
Party insiders always ask potential candidates if they have money and can raise money, said Robert Howard of Citizens for Responsible Government. When instead, he argued, they should be asking whether candidates have read and understand the Constitution.
Ana Puig of the Kitchen Table Patriots boasted of her group’s effort to engineer a no-endorsement vote by the Bucks County Republican Committee.
“We believe that’s they way it should be done. We are the taxpayers. We should have the choice,” she said.
“Should we work with the Republican party?” was one of the questions posed to the panel.
But a funny thing has happened over the past year: the relationship between Tea Partiers and Republican committees has evolved. The anti-establishment Tea Party has made serious strides toward joining the Republican committee system, while committees have moved further to the right.
Katy Abram of Lebanon County works with Americans for Prosperity and moderated the panel. She rose to Tea Party fame in 2009 when she challenged Senator Arlen Specter at a health care town hall, and since local Republican committee. She said the dynamic is changing.
“What I’ve seen across the state is a lot of Tea Party groups infiltrating the Republican committees. There are a number of people from the Tea Party that won county committee seats. At the state level, I think there is much more infiltration needed. We need a lot more conservative voices to get on to the state committee. I don’t believe we’re in the majority yet.”
“I think there’s great opportunity there. I think it’s going to eventually trickle up.”
It’s already started. More and more Republican insiders are cross-pollinating with the conservatives at PLC.
“I’m glad to see all these people who are on state committee attending the Pennsylvania Leadership Committee,” said Yvonne Morgan, Chairwoman of the Union County Republican Committee. “It shows that we’re taking a turn toward a more conservative political platform embracing our old conservative values.”
One operative noted the presence of the PA Republican Party booth in the exhibition hall. “That’s unheard of,” he said, and a sign of realization and outreach on the part of the GOP.
As well as anyone, Joe Sterns reflects the synthesis of the two groups. When PoliticsPA named him one of PA’s best county chairs, we said he has “the sense of an establishment veteran and credibility with tea party activists. Sterns opened up the historically closed (and moribund) Schuylkill committee, and activists rewarded him for it with countless hours of volunteering. He’s the PA GOP’s most successful chair person affiliated with the tea party.” He’s also the Executive Director of the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania.
“I guess the difference between me and a guy like [PA Republican Chairman] Rob Gleason is as long as Republicans outnumber Democrats, he’s happy,” said Sterns. “I want Republicans to win, but I want Republicans to do Republican things once they get there. Good policy is good politics.”
“I think that a lot of the folks here should get involved with their local committees and state committee. They ought to get involved in the political machinery. They have to. You can’t divorce the two. This idea that the state committee is over here and the activists are over here and nary do they meet, I think that’s not good. There should be a natural marriage of the two.”
Maybe the best example of that marriage came during the first day of the conference, when Toomey Campaign Manager Mark Harris (now of Cold Spark Media), political consultant Ryan Shafik (of Rockwood Strategies) and Ned Ryun (of American Majority) gave a seminar on running for local office.
It was a brass-tacks discussion of what candidates should be spending on voter contact, how to choose targeted precincts, how to build a staff, how to craft a message, and more. There were no GOP v. Tea Party arguments in that audience. Just 20 prospective candidates, 20 budding operatives, and three experts telling them what they needed to do to win.
“We wouldn’t have won the victory we did without them,” said one Republican operative talking about the Tea Party. “I can admit that. When you look at the people who voted in 2010, and especially the people who volunteered; they turned 1-in-4 voters into activists” (1-in-4 voters being those who typically vote only in a Presidential year).
“That said, without the money and direction the candidates got from the party, they couldn’t have won either. One couldn’t live without the other and that will be especially true in 2012.”
Back the the Tea Party panel, to the question of whether conservatives activists should work with the GOP, the answer was unanimous.
“The most important thing is that we defeat Barack Obama and Bobby Casey next year,” said Puig, to loud applause.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that Ms. Abram was not a member of the Lebanon County Republican Committee. Indeed she is.