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Senate Candidates Debate in Murrysville; Smith Wins Straw Poll

By Tara Jerry, Contributing Writer and Keegan Gibson, Managing Editor

Murrysville — The threat of snow did not deter more than 400+ people from attending the Murrysville-Export Republican Committee’s U.S. Senate Forum in Murrysville Friday evening.  Candidates spoke the the largest crowd yet in what was generally a genial debate.

For the most part, the debate was a race to the right. Candidates agreed on almost every issue, focused almost entirely on President Barack Obama, and criticized Casey only by proxy.

The first question, about energy policy, was an opportunity for the candidates to express their support for Marcellus Shale, a strong local interest.

Marc Scaringi, an attorney from Harrisburg, said, “We have to make Pennsylvania energy independent” and many of the other candidates expressed similar positions.

Tim Burns, a businessman and former congressional candidate from Washington County, said that becoming energy independent is one of the best things we can do to get our economy back on track, and would be better for the economy than the stimulus package.

“Right to Work” was also a big issue during the debate, following Rick Santorum’s claim during Thursday’s CNN Presidential debate that the reason he did not support national right to work legislation was that Pennsylvania voters did not support right to work legislation.  Each of the candidates disagreed with this position.

Steve Welch, an entrepreneur and former congressional candidate from Chester County said, “We have to pass national right to work to make us competitive in the global economy.”

Scaringi even said, “The fact that Pennsylvania is not right to work is harming the people of Pennsylvania.”

There was a brief discussion on President Obama’s recent recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board.

Former state Rep. and 2010 gubernatorial candidate Sam Rohrer said that the recess appointments were, “clearly an unconstitutional move by the President.”

The discussion about Obama gave Burns an opening to bash Welch’s 2005 switch to the Democratic party and his vote for Obama during the 2008 primary, as well as his financial support for Joe Sestak in 2006.

Welch offered a mea culpa on the party switch, and reiterated his support for John McCain in the 2008 general election, saying he thought Obama was the lesser of two evils compared to Hillary Clinton. For the first time, he answered the Sestak charge by bringing up the record of then Rep. Curt Weldon, the man Sestak defeated in 2006. Weldon was an establishment Republican who ran into ethics troubles near the end of his term, culminating in an FBI raid of his office.

In perhaps his strongest response yet to the party-switching charge, Welch said, “Tim Burns’ Republican party means Ronald Reagan could never have been President.”

The rest of the debate focused on job creation and the economy, specifically corporate tax rates.  All of the candidates favored lowering the corporate tax rate to promote job creation, but Kensinger was the only candidate to outline a very specific proposal during the debate.  He proposed cutting the federal tax rate in half to 17.5 percent or even less, while instituting a flat 15 percent on individual income tax.

Welch said that the current tax code punishes small businesses, and that there are too many loopholes for large corporations (he made a few references to GE paying 0 percent taxes were throughout the debate).

The candidates also expressed their desire to lift many regulations that hamper economic growth.  Burns suggested that anytime an agency wants to impose a new regulation, they would need to do an economic study first (and joked that those studies always take so long, the regulation would never actually go into effect).

After the lengthy answers, the moderator began a lightning round, where the candidates could only answer “yes,” “no,” or “abstain.”  All of the candidates said that they are pro-life, pro-second amendment, and would get rid of the Department of Education.

When asked if they would stay in the race if they did not receive the endorsement of the Republican State Committee, Welch and Burns said maybe, while the rest of the candidates said yes.  Welch abstained from answering questions about whether he supported privatizing the TSA or would refuse to vote for a debt limit increase; the other candidates all answered yes.  Rohrer said maybe on a question about imposing term limits (he served 18 years in Harrisburg), but all of the other candidates said yes (Kensinger even promised to only serve two terms if he were elected).  Finally, Burns abstained from answering questions about reforming Medicare to provide an opt-out for those who want one and a simple up-or-down vote on all legislation, while the other candidates all answered yes.

How they did

Here are the straw poll results (ballots also included more detailed ratings of the candidates’ performances, which we await eagerly and will post when available):

Tom Smith: 77
Sam Rohrer: 59
Marc Scaringi: 54
Steve Welch: 38
Tim Burns: 33
John Kensinger: 7

Sam Rohrer: A

The other candidates caught a huge break thanks to the debate’s format; Rohrer was the first to answer nearly every candidate. Being such a wonk, he set the tone for answers almost down the line. Rohrer did well connecting with the crowd, and made a strong defense of his time in Harrisburg (arguing that his voting record let voters know where he stood, as opposed the the plain words of the first time candidates).

Marc Scaringi: B

Another forum, another good performance from Scaringi. He knows the issues well. But we figured out his problem: he doesn’t spend sufficient time on his personal story or resume. Simply put, he makes a strong conservative case for why Casey should be replaced, but doesn’t seal the deal as to why he should be the man to replace him.

Steve Welch: B-

If we were grading Welch’s performance alone, the grade would have been higher. He answered questions with ease and was the best speaker of the group, especially when weaving his resume into his platform. He received fairly frequent applause. But Burns’ attacks (see below) took him down a peg, for sure – eliciting some jeering and laughing at his expense.

Tim Burns: C

If we were grading Tim Burns on how well he accomplished what he set out to do – namely, destroy Welch – he’d have gotten an A. He did a great job taking Welch down a notch (eg. “I forgive you Steve. I welcome you back to the Republican party. But I don’t trust you to be our Senator.”), but evidently not a great job selling himself. He didn’t have any gaffes, just no home runs except his hits on Welch. But at the end of the day, those are the hits he’s focused on.

Tom Smith: A-

Smith got off to a slow, somewhat plodding start. But he started to pick up in the middle and finished very strong. Smith got the most laughs of any candidate and was the most personable. “My wife told me not to be mean to Bob Casey tonight,” he said. “‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because,’ she said. So I’d better not.” Asked if he supported term limits, Smith, 64, said yes, “and father time would take care of that in my case anyway” – to the biggest audience laugh of the night.

John Kensinger: B

We give Kensinger credit for presenting the most specific ideas and policy positions. But his presentation was lacking: his voice was low and monotone, and he never really worked the crowd.

Presidential straw poll

Rick Santorum: 81
Newt Gingrich: 56
Mitt Romney: 40
Ron Paul: 22

10 Responses

  1. Attacking Steve Welch who has a proven real world record as a free market entrepreneur for one single lapse in judgement when he was far less informed than now is an idea that only the incompetent loser Ray Zabourney could think would work.

    If this is the worst one can say about Steve Welch or anyone else, then that person is of high character. Ronald Reagan was once a Democrat and proud Union member. All of us evolve our thinking.

    Tim Burns has made a serious error in his choice of a campaign consultant.

    Steve Welch’s consultants produced SEPARATED AT BIRTH and Tim Burns Ray Zabourney hammer ancient history.

    Going negative is not a winning strategy and the Christian campaign could remember that as well.

  2. STEELBLITZ1 says:
    These candidates suck. They should get someone in a super hero costume to run.

    LOL I think I agree with you.

  3. Smith was a lifelong democrat until about 3 or 6 weeks (I’ve heard both) before he declared as a Republican for Senate. None of these can even come close to being a Ronald Reagan.

  4. I was at the debate, 5 rows off the stage. I’m not sure I agree with the way you graded the candidates. Candidate Kensinger a “B” and Tim Burns a “C”. Are you kidding me?

    Tim Burns didn’t set out to destroy candidate Welch. Burns simply wanted to point out something most in attendance didn’t know. Steve Welch was a democrat that voted for President Obama.

    Do you think the liberal left don’t already know that, and have a plan to use that information to attack Welch? On that point alone, Welch will have to defend that position for the entire campaign, making him unelectable.

    We should look at a candidate that can and will stand up to the Obama political machine. Based on the debate, that person is Tim Burns.

  5. Thank you so much for info. The Greensburg crew is knowledgeable,so their straw poll is an honor. Meeting Rohrer, I was very impressed at his courage of conviction, also easy listening speaking ability when he ran for Gov. But, I know the routine, find someone who can bring business to State committeepeople or show well on Oprah.

  6. Dave Christian is the best of this bunch. These guys are either former failed Democrats or Failed Republicans.

  7. Welsh was not the only one that was a Democrat. Tom Smith has been a Democrat and an Armstong County Democratic Committeeperson for several years.

  8. Did Welch just compare himself to Reagan?? That says something about who Steve Welch is. The more we learn of this guy’s character, the more I anticipate buyer’s remorse for the governor.
    Can you see Reagan hosting a Sestak fundraiser?

  9. Saw the candidates in Doylestown the other night. Nice to see Rohrer repeat his excellent performance. I didn’t realize that Welsh was a former D that supported Sestak. That isn’t good. He does make a nice presentation though. Burns didn’t attend so I don’t have an opinion and Smith needs work on his platform skills. ENERGY and knowledge.

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