State GOP candidates brawling in public

Steve Welch, backed by the party establishment, let loose a torrent of TV ads against his main rival.
Steve Welch, backed by the party establishment, let loose a torrent of TV ads against his main rival.
Posted: April 24, 2012

Pennsylvania Democrats tend to settle their battles in public. The state's Republicans hash theirs out behind closed doors.

Or so goes a saying among veteran political watchers, referring to the latter party's predilection for rallying around an anointed candidate before most voters have even realized an election is in the offing.

But this year, two GOP Senate candidates have bucked that script, filling the state's television airwaves with unusually personal invective matched only by that of the two Democrats seeking their party's nomination for attorney general.

"Republicans tend to like that model," said Chris Borick, a Muhlenberg College political scientist, referring to more genteel campaigns. "But I think it's eroding - we're seeing that in this year's race."

Consider a sampling:

This month, Steve Welch, the Senate candidate backed by the party establishment, unleashed a torrent of ads on TV calling his chief rival, Armstrong County coal executive Tom Smith, "the worst Republican impersonator ever."

Another spot appearing on the Web - and employing a clip from the Adam Sandler film Billy Madison - described Smith's rhetorical style as rambling, incoherent, and "insanely idiotic."

For his part, Smith has countered with ads branding Welch a supporter of President Obama.

Truth is, both Smith and Welch have Democratic baggage. Smith was a registered Democrat for more than four decades, though he maintains that he stood by tea party principles. Welch switched parties to vote for Obama in the 2008 primary, but maintains that he cast a ballot for Republican nominee John McCain in the general election.

Despite questions over Welch's Republican bona fides, Gov. Corbett aggressively pushed the Malvern businessman as his candidate at the party's endorsement convention in January. Many, including Smith, balked at the suggestion that party members should fall in line.

Now, four months later, Welch's and Smith's campaigns have reported spending more than $3 million on ads bashing each other. Imagine the media maelstrom if the race's three other candidates - former State House Rep. Sam Rohrer, Harrisburg-area lawyer Marc Scaringi, and veterans' advocate David Christian - had money to take their campaigns on air.

Still, none of that compares with what Pennsylvania might have been in for had another unseemly Republican political fight arrived here in force.

For the first time since the 1980s Reagan-Bush showdown, it had looked like this year's presidential primary here could be critical - either handing front-runner Mitt Romney the crushing victory he needed to finally put Rick Santorum's challenge to rest, or putting fresh wind behind the former Pennsylvania senator's sails.

Romney and his supporters were preparing for battle. Earlier this month, his campaign and the super political action committee backing him set aside nearly $3 million to take on Santorum on his home state airwaves.

So far, both groups have spent upward of $34 million on negative advertising bashing Romney's rivals, in hotly contested states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida.

But here in the Keystone State, TV watchers caught only a glimpse of that acrimony. Just a few anti-Santorum attack ads ran here before Romney pulled them in deference to the ailing health of the former senator's 3-year-old daughter, Bella.

Then, Santorum dropped out April 10 - dashing the hopes of dozens of TV ad sales representatives across the state.

The result, said Borick: More and cheaper airtime for the state's other candidates to snipe at each other.


Contact Jeremy Roebuck

at 267-564-5218 or jroebuck@phillynews.com,

or follow on Twitter @jeremyrroebuck.

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