2012-02-02 / Local & State

Republicans Endorse Welch To Challenge Casey


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – A Chester County entrepreneur won the endorsement Saturday from Pennsylvania’s Republican Party in what could be a bruising, four-way primary election for the nomination to contest Democrat Bob Casey’s re-election bid for U.S. Senate.

The endorsement was won by Steve Welch after an extraordinary show of power by Gov. Tom Corbett, who began calling state party officials to tell them of his support for Welch less than two weeks ago. Corbett spent much of Friday and Saturday at the party’s winter meeting at the Hershey Lodge, speaking at both public events and in private with committee members about the need to endorse the candidate he backed.

The party followed suit, even though Welch had finished third in a series of straw votes earlier in January and despite pressure from some quarters, such as Tea Partyaligned groups, not to endorse anyone. In a brief speech afterward to state committee members, Welch told them it was time to “unite as a party and a conservative movement,’’ but rivals within minutes attacked both him and the endorsement process.

The campaign of Tom Smith, a former coal industry executive from Armstrong County, called it a “week full of negative attacks, arm-twisting and backroom deals,’’ and pasted Welch with the label of “a self-professed moderate with a record of supporting liberal Democrats like Barack Obama and Joe Sestak.’’

Sam Rohrer, a former nineterm state House member from Berks County who lost to the party-endorsed Corbett in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, said the unusual pressure exerted by Corbett on state committee members won Welch the endorsement, but would prove damaging to the party.

The endorsement of Welch will be viewed by grassroots party members “as a poke in the face,’’ Rohrer said.

Welch has been criticized by his rivals for briefly changing his registration to Democrat so he could vote for Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary and giving money to Sestak when he ran for U.S. House in 2006. In his prepared remarks to state committee members after the vote, Welch addressed the topic, saying he was one of hundreds of thousands of people who left the party because they felt let down by former President George W. Bush and a Republican controlled Congress.

“But when I took one look at the extreme agenda coming from Obama, Casey, Reid, and Pelosi, I came back to the Republican Party with a vengeance,’’ he said in prepared remarks. “But I didn’t just commit to being a Republican. Partisanship is not what matters most to me. I dedicated myself to making sure our party never again strayed from our principles.’’

In other statewide races, Republicans endorsed Cumberland County District Attorney Dave Freed for attorney general, Allegheny County state Rep. John Maher for auditor general and Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan for treasurer.

The party’s endorsement means the winner will have access to its considerable resources to win the primary campaign. Aside from raising money, one major task for candidates without the endorsement is setting up a statewide network of volunteers to help organize campaign events, knock on doors and more.

To get their name on ballots, the candidates must gather enough signatures of registered voters to qualify no later than Feb. 14. Candidates for U.S. Senate need 2,000.

Rohrer, Smith and Cumberland County lawyer Mark Scaringi say they will run for U.S. Senate without the endorsement. It was not immediately clear whether Washington County entrepreneur Tim Burns, who had led the pack in the straw votes, would keep running, and his campaign aides did not respond to requests for comment. On Friday, a campaign spokesman said Burns was not considering suggestions by Corbett that he run for a U.S. House seat instead.

Primary elections are April 24.

None of the candidates for U.S. Senate has held public office or run a statewide campaign before, except for Rohrer. In an interview Saturday, Rohrer said he has a network of volunteers intact from his 2010 campaign for governor, as well as a conservative voting record in the state Legislature to highlight.

“I’m able to say, ‘If you want know where I’m going to be on taxes and spending, here’s what I did,’ ’’ Rohrer said.

Smith, who was registered as a Democrat for much of his life, has already invested $5 million of his own money into his campaign. His campaign aides nonetheless say he has been dedicated his entire life to conservative causes.

“An outsider candidate, Tom demonstrated strong establishment support and remains best positioned to unite the Republican Party and lead a successful ticket in November,’’ campaign manager Jim Conroy said in a statement Saturday.

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