Area's GOP congressmen score low in a way that could help

Charlie Dent , LehighValley
Charlie Dent , LehighValley
Posted: February 26, 2014

WASHINGTON - For local Republicans, these failing grades might be a good thing.

The Club for Growth, the conservative advocacy group that favors low-tax, anti-regulation, pro-business policies - and opposes any hint of compromise - released its 2013 ratings Monday, and Republican congressmen from the Philadelphia suburbs received some of the lowest marks of anyone in the GOP.

Four local Republicans were ranked in the House GOP's bottom 10. Bucks County's Mike Fitzpatrick, Chester County's Jim Gerlach, South Jersey's Jon Runyan, and the Lehigh Valley's Charlie Dent all scored 42 or 43 percent in the club's rating system.

The other three local Republicans - South Jersey's Chris Smith and Frank LoBiondo and Delaware County's Pat Meehan - also finished near the bottom of their conference for 2013, according to the club.

The lifetime ratings were similar: Smith, Fitzpatrick, and LoBiondo have the three lowest lifetime scores of any House Republicans graded last year. Gerlach was fifth lowest, Runyan seventh, and Dent and Meehan were both in the bottom 15.

So why might that be a good thing for them?

At least politically, it's about the moderate districts these Republicans all represent.

The Club for Growth has many fans among those who want to see conservative fiscal policies and who generally oppose taxes or government interference in business.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) was once the group's president and scored 93 percent last year - even though he has stepped to the middle on several social issues, he remains strongly conservative on fiscal concerns. His 94 percent lifetime rating qualified him for the club's "Defender of Economic Freedom" award.

But the club is also known in Washington as one of the forces pulling Republicans to the right and attempting to derail compromises on budgets and spending, even as many voters express disgust with congressional gridlock. (No Democrat in the region did better in the club's eyes than the 18 percent scored by U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia.)

In many House districts, with electorates tilted heavily to the right or left, unyielding stances play well. Not in the Philadelphia suburbs, where the electorates are moderate and voters are almost evenly split between Republican and Democrat. There, compromise is a good word.

It's not that the local Republicans disagree with the club's goals - given their way, it's a safe bet each would vote for tax cuts and softer regulation. But they also have a more pragmatic side than many colleagues. Standing on principle while the government grinds to a close might impress some voters, but overall, that won't work for the majority of these lawmakers' constituents.

So the local delegation (with an exception here and there) has been part of the small band of Republicans who have crossed party lines to help pass bills that averted the fiscal cliff, approved a Hurricane Sandy aid package, ended last fall's government shutdown, and, earlier this month, raised the federal debt ceiling.

Those votes put them on the wrong side with the Club for Growth, but probably on the right side with many voters.

Candidates in the region's swing districts are more likely to campaign this fall on tone than on drastic policy distinctions. Yes, Republicans will run hard against Obamacare and Democrats will paint the GOP as elitists who don't care about working folks.

But for the most part, candidates in both parties will plant their flags on a relatively small patch of ground in the middle, separated by only a few yards of political turf.

They'll try to draw their biggest distinctions by portraying themselves as pragmatic centrists and their opponents as extremists.

In these particular districts, a strong Club for Growth score might play into the Democratic depiction of Republicans as out-of-step zealots. Instead, local House Republicans emerged with poor club grades - but a good counterpoint.


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