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Conservative candidates see disappointing results in Pennsylvania primary

By   /   May 22, 2014  /   No Comments

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

When Scott Wagner pulled off a stunning write-in campaign to claim a Pennsylvania Senate seat in March, hardline conservatives hoped the special election portended more success for anti-establishment candidates.

Tuesday’s primary election didn’t quite play out that way — at least through results from the ballot box — perhaps confirming analysts’ belief that Wagner’s win was best attributed to a specific set of local circumstances rather than a wave of conservatism washing over the state.

The Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, which favors limited government and has supported upstart conservatives candidates, endorsed Republicans in eight contested primaries. Just two won.

WAGNER WINS AGAIN: Conservative state Sen. Scott Wagner was one of the lone bright spots for anti-establishment candidates running in Tuesday's primary.

WAGNER WINS AGAIN: Conservative state Sen. Scott Wagner was one of the lone bright spots for anti-establishment candidates running in Tuesday’s primary.

Those results fell in line with the election-day opinion of James Broussard, an expert on Republican politics and a professor of political science at Lebanon Valley College. He didn’t believe that momentum from Wagner’s earlier win would carry into the primary.

“I don’t see a wave out there that would benefit insurgents because I don’t see an across-the-statewide issue that would anger people,” Broussard said.

Wagner definitely harnessed an angry electorate to win the special election in historic fashion. Many voters said they believed party leaders tried to rig the race in favor of veteran state Rep. Ron Miller, R-York, by scheduling the special election two months before the primary. They also voiced displeasure with the GOP attacking Wagner in television ads that they saw as unfair.

“You don’t have those circumstances in any of these other cases,” Broussard said.

While CAP endorsed two candidates running against state House incumbents on Tuesday, there wasn’t a palpable sense that voters were ready to rebel against state Rep. Mauree Gingrich, R-Lebanon, or state Rep. Karen Boback, R-Luzerne. Both survived, despite the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania going after them in mailers.

Wagner, though, came through again.

On the ballot this time and with the power of an — albeit brief — incumbency on his side, Wagner plowed over Republican challenger Zachary Hearn with nearly 85 percent of the vote. He will square off against Democratic nominee Linda Small for a chance to hold the seat for a full term.

After nearly unseating House Speaker Sam Smith in the 2012 primary as a political unknown, conservative Cris Dush returned for a second attempt this year. The rematch never happened when Smith opted to retire, and Dush overcame two other challengers for a narrow primary win. He’ll face Democratic nominee Robert Santik for the 66th Legislative District seat this fall.

Dush did not return a message seeking comment.

The anti-establishment candidates came close to scoring a third win in York County, where CAP-endorsed Ernie Merisotis was running on a platform that included eliminating school property taxes and a return to a “citizen Legislature” with part-time pay.  He lost by 333 votes to Kristin Phillips-Hill for the GOP nomination in the 93rdLegislative District.

Not far from there, in the newly created legislative district in southwestern York County, CAP-endorsed Marc Woerner finished third in a four-person primary after taking heavy fire in mailer with shadowy origins.

The mailers questioned his conservative credentials. PA Taxpayers for Integrity paid for the ads, but the group isn’t registered with the Department of State and it has a bogus post office box.  Woerner said he plans to file a complaint with the Department of State this week.

“Those mailers and garbage like that is why good people don’t get involved in politics,” Woerner said on election day.

Leo Knepper, executive director of CAP, called the mailers “really disturbing,” but said he didn’t know if they would make a large difference in a four-person race. Regardless, Woerner didn’t make it through the primary, leaving Wagner and Dush as the lone wins among contested races.

Knepper said he hadn’t thought about what would constitute a successful day, but pointed to a moral victory. He said CAP has influenced the tone of candidates, even in races they didn’t touch.

More candidates are starting to embrace ideas such as turning down state perks and taxpayer-funded pension, and coming around to setting term limits on themselves, Knepper said.

And CAP still has the Wagner write-in win to claim as a “huge victory.”

“Anything we can add to that, as long as we’re keeping things moving in the upward direction is a victory,” Knepper said.

Staub can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

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Andrew Staub is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org based in central Pennsylvania. Contact him at astaub@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @AndrewStaub.

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