Pa. governor draws ire for interfering in state's Senate seat battle

“It was the most unique meeting of the [Republican] state committee I’ve ever been to!” former Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.) exclaimed to HUMAN EVENTS, shortly after the tumultuous meeting of the Pennsylvania Republican State Committee, “I’ve seen Republican governors — Dick Thornburgh (1978-86) and Tom Ridge (1994-2002), for example — try to get state committees to do their bidding.  But, believe me, no one rolled up his sleeves and worked a committee the way [present Gov.] Tom Corbett did at the meeting in Hershey.”

English, himself a state committeeman, could have been speaking for many who attended that party conclave.  In a move that many Keystone State Republicans say was unprecedented, Gov. Corbett secured the endorsement of the state committee for a Republican candidate to oppose Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, Jr. this fall.  The reason that Corbett’s move is so controversial is twofold: first, there are five candidates seeking nomination in the April primary and second, Corbett’s favored candidate, businessman Steve Welch, has contributed to Democrats and was himself a registered Democrat who voted in the Democratic presidential primary in ’08.

One of Welch’s opponents spoke to HUMAN EVENTS and pulled no punches.

 “There’s no question that what we witnessed was over the top and unprecedented,” former State Rep. and conservative Sam Rohrer told us, “There were state committee members who came to me in tears after the Hershey meeting and said their arms were twisted so badly [to support Welch] that they were threatened with the loss of state jobs.”

Rohrer, who served 14 years in the state Legislature and was the runner-up to Corbett in the 2010 primary for governor, also charged that the committee endorsement “rejected the wishes of thousands of people who signed petitions requesting that the process be kept open and there be no endorsement before the primary.”  He cited a meeting at the Hershey Lodge two days before the state committee vote in which State Chairman Bob Gleason ignored petitions containing the signatures of thousands asking for no endorsement.  Rohrer added that the endorsement process was a “slap to the freedom movement — that is the tea partiers, the 9/12 activists, and the property rights movement, all of whom have just become very involved in the party.”

 “What a beautiful opportunity this would have been to reach out to new people for the party, and to do so at a time when Republicans are one million down in party registration here in Pennsylvania,” said Rohrer, who also headed Americans for Prosperity in the state.

Along with Welch and Rohrer, other Republican hopefuls are coal executive Tom Smith, attorney Marc Scaringi, and decorated Vietnam War veteran Dave Christian. 

Although Welch has contributed to Republicans, he also donated to leftist Democrat Joe Sestak when he unseated Republican Rep. Curt Weldon in ’06 and changed his registration from Republican to Democrat two years later and voted for Barack Obama in the presidential primary.  When HUMAN EVENTS brought up these controversies with Welch at a Republican breakfast in Lancaster County last October, the candidate explained that he contributed to Sestak because of corruption investigations swirling around Weldon (who was never charged with any crime), that he changed to Democrat out of disgust over widespread government spending under George W. Bush, and voted for Obama because he felt he was the easiest opponent for John McCain to defeat.  And, he quickly added, “I was wrong in a big way.”

Some Republican activists have no problem with what others call Welch’s “apostasies.”  Jen Walton, president of the Doylestown Republican Club, told HUMAN EVENTS that “[a]s for the Welch issue, it’s been an interesting topic. I’m not sure on this one. It’s very strange especially with his voting history and semi allegiance to the Democratic side of things. But, perhaps we need someone who is on the line to win over the Democrats and defeat Casey. He may have a strength we are unaware of when it comes to getting a Republican elected.”

But many others, as Sam Rohrer made clear, don’t share this view.

Gov. Corbett defends his actions

As conservatives throughout Pennsylvania continued to register their disappointment with Gov. Corbett for his unusually strong effort to line up support for Steve Welch this year, the Republican chief executive strongly defended his actions to HUMAN EVENTS.

Corbett, who spoke to us during the National Governors Association meeting in Washington this weekend, made no apologies for securing a pre-primary Senate endorsement by the state Republican committee for Welch.

Insisting there was a difference between his neutrality in the Republican presidential sweepstakes with his stand for Welch over four opponents in the Senate primary — “It’s a state race” — Corbett said he supported Welch because “he’s been helpful to the [Republican] party, a successful businessman.”  The governor also told us that Welch’s nomination “would add geographic balance to the ticket, since he’s from Chester County and the attorney general candidate is from Central Pennsylvania and the candidates for auditor general and treasurer are from Southwest Pennsylvania.”

Corbett said he was not bothered by Welch’s re-registration as a Democrat in ’08 and admission he voted for Barack Obama in the Pennsylvania primary. 

 “My understanding is that he did this as part of ‘Operation Chaos,’” the governor told us, referring to Rush Limbaugh’s encouragement of Republican voters to cross over into Democratic primaries in ’08 and support whom they thought was the weaker presidential candidate.

Corbett did not address Welch’s support of Sestak in his successful race against Republican Rep. Curt Weldon in 2006.

Welch faces four conservative opponents in the May primary to choose an opponent to Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, Jr.