Corbett's slate exposes GOP rift

Steve Welch was Corbett's man, but rivals vow a fight.
Steve Welch was Corbett's man, but rivals vow a fight.

Malvern's Steve Welch won endorsement in the U.S. Senate race but may face in-party opposition.

Posted: January 29, 2012

HERSHEY, Pa. - Malvern businessman Steve Welch won Republican Party backing Saturday in his bid to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. But his party's imprimatur came at a price: exposing soft spots in Gov. Corbett's influence over the most conservative elements of his party.

The governor - who had thrown his weight behind Welch days before this weekend's state GOP committee meeting - faced pushback from tea party activists, Republicans from the Philadelphia suburbs, and others who felt he was trying to force a candidate upon them.

The groups urged committee members to reject the endorsement process and let all seven candidates vying for Casey's seat battle it out evenly in the April 24 primary.

"It is totally wrong for us to discourage these seven people from running for office," former Northampton County Councilman Ron Angle said. "The bottom line here is: Let the people decide."

Despite the tumult, Welch accepted the endorsement Saturday and said he was ready to continue his fight against his intraparty rivals to decide who takes on the Democrats.

"As a party and conservative movement, it is time to unite to defeat the Obama-Casey agenda," he said. "I look forward to a spirited debate over the coming months about the future of this great country."

Corbett spent the weekend working to mend the rifts that had opened and avoid the political embarrassment of having his choices rebuffed. During a debate Friday night, he was spotted taking individual committee members aside to lobby for their votes.

The governor hopes to enter this year's statewide races with a unified and geographically diverse slate of Republican candidates comprising Welch in the Senate race, Cumberland County District Attorney David Freed for attorney general, State Rep. John Maher of Allegheny County for auditor general, and Washington County Commissioner Diana Irey Vaughan for treasurer.

All received endorsements Saturday.

But that outcome wasn't so clear in the run-up to this weekend's endorsement convention in Hershey.

Delegates from the party's Southeastern caucus - made up of Republican committees in Philadelphia and its suburban counties - balked earlier this month when the governor announced he was backing Freed in the attorney general's race, not State Sen. John Rafferty of Montgomery County.

Rafferty had emerged as the favored candidate of major party donor and Montgomery County native Robert B. Asher, but he dropped out of the race the day Corbett went public with his endorsement announcement.

The Senate race offered a more crowded field - a seven-man free-for-all that includes Washington County businessman Tim Burns, former coal executive Tom Smith, Dauphin County lawyer Marc Scaringi, and former State Rep. Sam Rohrer of Berks County.

Two other candidates who did not receive party nominations Saturday also remain in contention: David Christian, a Bucks County veterans' advocate; and John Kensinger, a Bedford County pharmacist.

The governor's decision to back Welch, and his expectation that caucus voters would follow suit, rankled many.

Ana Puig, cochair of the Kitchen Table Patriots, a Bucks County tea party group, was among those urging the committee to forgo a senatorial endorsement. She held her own protest news conference Saturday during the endorsement meeting.

"We have some great candidates competing in this race, and it is time for the voters of Pennsylvania to have a voice in this process," she said.

Welch, a Chester County native, twice ran unsuccessful bids for U.S. House districts. Founder of the Phoenixville biotech firm Mitos, he has since launched the tech company incubator DreamIt Ventures.

A self-described moderate, he has come under attack for registering as a Democrat to vote for Barack Obama during the party's 2008 primary.

"From the very first day I launched my candidacy, I've been completely open with the voters about my own partisan history," he said.

Of Welch's Republican challengers, Smith, of Armstrong County, poses the greatest threat. He received 51 committee endorsement votes Saturday to Welch's 183 and may have the financial resources to prolong a primary fight. He has already injected more than $5 million of his own money into his campaign.

Within minutes of losing Saturday's endorsement, he pledged to stay in the race, and attacked Welch for his "record of supporting liberal Democrats."

What this all means for Pennsylvania's current ruling party come Election Day remains unclear. Some committee members feared the continued infighting showed a Republican coalition in disarray.

But committee chairman Robert Gleason maintained that if the weekend proved anything, it was the health of the state GOP - one with strong candidates and room for internal debate.


Contact staff writer Jeremy Roebuck at 267-564-5218, jroebuck@phillynews.com, or @jeremyrroebuck on Twitter.

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