Pennsylvania GOP Senate Primary Race Beginning to Take Shape

Lancaster Township, Penn.—It seems a safe bet to say that the Republican nominee against Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) next year will be strongly pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, pro-repeal of ObamaCare, against any tax increases, and strangely, a candidate who has never held public office before.

With little over three months before the February 14 filing deadline for the April 24 primary, it’s a safe bet that none of the Republican office-holders mentioned as Senate hopefuls—Reps. Tim Murphy and State Sen. Jake Corman, for example—will challenge one-termer Casey. 

Without “first-string” candidates, the Republican Senate field features eight earnest-but-obscure starters.  The contenders considered the top three in the field (at this point, at least) were all present Saturday at the Lancaster Township Republican breakfast.

“It’s good to see that many of our Senate candidates are here, meeting people and working the crowd,” said Ann Womble, chairman of the breakfast, which drew a packed room of more than 130 guests in spite of snow warnings.  “So far, we don’t really know any of the candidates well, so I’m sure, events like this give them a chance to know likely Republican voters and us a chance to talk to them.”

If energy were the pivotal factor in the campaign, attorney and former Santorum aide Marc Scaringi would be the runaway front-runner.  Throughout the year, he has attended more than 100 party events throughout the state and, as one wag put it, “Marc would go to the opening of an envelope.”  While polls show Casey strong now, Scaringi feels “his votes for ‘ObamaCare’ and the stimulus package are going to come back to haunt him—with the right opponent who can articulate the issue differences.”

One recent entry into the race that drew considerable interest at the breakfast was Delaware County (PA) entrepreneur Steve Welch.  Having launched several successful small businesses, former engineer Welch is considered formidable because he can use considerable personal wealth for a campaign.  Already, he has several members of the campaign team of Sen. Pat Toomey (R.-Penn.) and consultant John Brabender, who has handled several winning GOP races in the Keystone State.

Regarding the comments about him that he was a registered Democrat for a few years in the last decade and voted in the ’08 Democratic presidential primary, Welch told HUMAN EVENTS that “I got disgusted at George W. Bush’s spending policies, especially the prescription drug legislation and ‘No Child Left Behind.’  So I got mad and became a Democrat in ’05.  Consider it a ‘youthful error.’  But I never changed my views and I have been back in the Republican Party for some time now.”

Retired U.S. Army Col. John Vernon is the first career military officer to go from the service to run for the Senate in Pennsylvania since Marine Gen. and two-time Medal of Honor recipient Smedley Butler sought the Republican nomination in 1932.  As Chief of Operations for Gen. David Petraeus in Iraq, Vernon sports impressive credentials and has been a much-sought speaker in his home state of Pennsylvania since his military retirement after 32 years of service.  The Mansfield man drew swatches of publicity for a statewide listening tour in which he spoke at tea party events, veterans groups, Young Republicans, and even dropped in to listen to some of the “occupy” demonstrators.  Recently, Vernon named John Peschong, veteran California campaign operative, as his top strategist.

The nomination sought by Vernon, Welch, Scaringi, and five others is not thought to be as important to possible GOP control of the Senate as Republican Senate primaries in, say, Missouri, Ohio or Wisconsin.  But with a Muhlenberg College poll showing Barack Obama’s popularity at a record low (35%) among Pennsylvania voters and Republican activists in Lancaster and elsewhere increasingly feeling they can put the state in their column for President for the first time since 1988, this Senate race is worth watching.