2012-04-05 / Features

Do Pa. Republicans Know Senate Candidates?

By Marc Levy
ASSOCIATED PRESS

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Crunch time is beginning for virtually unknown Republican candidates looking to unseat Sen. Bob Casey, and money for TV ads and an organization of volunteers willing to dial other voters, knock on doors and hand out fliers will be crucial.

The candidates – manufacturing exec and decorated Vietnam veteran David Christian, former state Rep. Sam Rohrer, lawyer Marc Scaringi, retired coal businessman Tom Smith and entrepreneur Steve Welch – have low name recognition outside of the Republican activist community, and polling shows that voters are split among them.

All are running on a platform of cutting the reach and cost of federal government, repealing President Barack Obama's signature health care law, opposing abortion rights and advancing various other bedrock conservative causes. With shades of conservatism to pick between, many Republicans will likely make decisions in the April 24 primary based on other things, such as background or name familiarity.

“Can you get your message out and put together a ground organization that can turn out voters and educate those voters?”' said Peter Towey, Welch's campaign manager.

One problem is that only one candidate has run for a statewide office – Rohrer in the 2010 gubernatorial primary, unsuccessfully – and the other is that the GOP presidential primary and higher-profile Senate races in other states are absorbing attention and donor money.

Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, N.C., found this month that nearly half of the Republicans surveyed were undecided, while preference for the candidates was divided among the rest of those polled. A poll from Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster released Wednesday showed that four in five voters are undecided in the race.

On Wednesday, Welch began running his first TV ad statewide. Smith has aired TV ads since December, and has one running statewide, except for in the Philadelphia market. The rest have not advertised on TV.

Casey, a Democrat, is seeking a second six-year term after unseating Rick Santorum in 2006.

Each of his would-be challengers has some sort of political experience.

Besides losing the 2010 primary to Gov. Tom Corbett, Rohrer served 18 years in the state House representing part of Berks County. Scaringi, who lives in suburban Harrisburg, worked on the campaigns of Rick Santorum for U.S. Senate and Mike Fisher for state attorney general before joining both men's offices in an official capacity.

Welch filed to run in two U.S. House districts in suburban Philadelphia for the 2010 election before dropping that idea and volunteering for Pat Toomey’s U.S. Senate campaign. Smith was a member of the Plumcreek Township board of supervisors in Armstrong County. Christian ran twice in the 1980s, unsuccessfully, for U.S. House in Bucks County.

Three of the candidates are being attacked by rival campaigns.

Rohrer, who represented Berks County in the House for 18 years, voted in 2001 to increase his and other legislators' pensions and again in 2005 to increase his and other legislators' pay.

Welch, of Chester County, switched his registration to the Democratic Party in 2005 and voted in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary – for Barack Obama, he said. He says he switched parties after becoming disenchanted with Washington, D.C., and insists he voted for Republican John McCain in the 2008 general election.

The state Republican Party endorsement vote in February has brought Welch the opportunity to appear at news conferences with some of the party's leading lights, including National GOP chairman Reince Priebus, but it's also drawn attacks during candidate forums after Corbett went to extraordinary lengths to ensure a Welch victory.

Then there's Tom Smith of Armstrong County, who is largely retired from a coalmining enterprise he founded. For practically his entire voting life, he was registered as a Democrat, and even voted in the 2010 Democratic primary – although he claims not to remember who he voted for.

Smith’s campaign responded that he has otherwise acted like a conservative and supported conservatives.

The money advantage is Smith's, who has plowed millions of his personal wealth into his campaign already, and Welch's, who also is tapping his own considerable bank account and has the fundraising machinery of the state party to help. Thus far, no major outside group is putting money into the race in an effort to tip the scales.

In terms of organization, Welch's efforts should benefit from the volunteers who traditionally aid the campaigns of party- endorsed candidates. Rohrer is relying on a network of social conservatives and tea party-style activists still in place from his 2010 campaign for governor.

It remains to be seen whether the GOP presidential race lasts long enough to drive up voter turnout in the sleepy U.S. Senate primary.

One Rohrer supporter, Alfred Kiser of the Northwest Pennsylvania Tea Party and a member of the Erie County GOP committee, said one group of people can be counted on either way.

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