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Pennsylvania Tea Party Sought Influence Rather Than Revolution

By   /   December 23, 2010  /   No Comments

Rohrer’s primary challenge resonated with Corbett

As governor-elect Tom Corbett prepares to take office, many of his key policy positions – including the much-discussed “no-tax” pledge – seem to have been taken straight from the Tea Party playbook.

Or at least from the campaign of the man he defeated in the Republican gubernatorial primary election last May.

That man is former state Rep. Sam Rohrer, who generated a surge of support from Tea Party groups in the state during his shoestring campaign. Although Mr. Rohrer won only 31 percent of the vote statewide, he did well enough to win a majority of the vote in two counties (Lancaster and Berks) and had enough supporters to seemingly push Mr. Corbett towards positions he may have otherwise avoided.

It was Mr. Rohrer who was the first to talk about a no-tax pledge during the campaign; weeks before Mr. Corbett took the same stance. The pledge would eventually become a central part of Mr. Corbett’s campaign against Democrat nominee Dan Onorato in the general election.

Other positions and issues which Mr. Rohrer and the grassroots movement has pushed for in the past year – ranging from school choice to opposition to a tax on natural gas extraction and promises to reduce the size of state government – also became key elements of the governor-elect’s winning fall campaign.

Dr. Joseph Disarro, a professor of political science at Washington and Jefferson College, said Mr. Corbett entered the gubernatorial race as the establishment Republican, but co-opted Tea Party support by committing to a reduction in government spending.

“Corbett was able to establish himself as a centrist and a mainstream candidate who followed the principles of the Republican Party,” said Dr. Joseph DiSarro, a professor of political science at Washington and Jefferson College. “But his link to the Tea Party was on the tax and spending issues.”

Whether he intended it or not, Mr. Rohrer developed a strong following from many of the state’s Tea Party groups, particularly the rural parts of the southeast where he defeated Mr. Corbett in Lancaster and Berks counties.

“Sam Rohrer was the epitome of what the Tea Party movement was asking for,” said Sharon Cherubin, founder and executive director of Unite PA, a grassroots organization based in Lancaster County.

She agreed that Mr. Corbett moved closer to Tea Party positions as the campaign wore on, specifically pointing to a campaign stop he made at a Unite PA event in September. Mr. Corbett talked “openly and honestly” with leaders from grassroots organizations around the state, and made it clear he was serious about avoiding new taxes, she said.

Looking back on his campaign, Mr. Rohrer said it was never his intention to split the Republican Party, but rather to bring attention to certain issues and generate enough support to force the mainstream Republican candidates to embrace them.

“I am a Republican and I believe in historical Republican positions, and I think there was a large group of voters who believed in the same things,” said Mr. Rohrer.

Sam Rohrer

The strategy seems to have worked, both for Mr. Rohrer and the Tea Party groups that supported his candidacy.

“They did influence the debate, there is no question about that,” said Mr. DiSarro. “Corbett staked out his positions on no new taxes and less spending in large part because the Tea Party was pushing those issues.”

At the same time, the Tea Party in Pennsylvania did not create a divide within the Republican Party the way it did in other states. Instead, the movement used its influence to highlight tax and spending issues which mainstream Republicans like Mr. Corbett latched onto, said Terry Madonna, a pollster and professor of political science at Franklin and Marshall College.

“Pennsylvania escaped in a sense the side of the Tea Party that resulted in deep divisions within the Republican electorate,” said Mr. Madonna. “I think many of the Republicans that just got elected are sympathetic to the budget cutting the Tea Parties want.”

Mr. Rohrer said he believes the impact of the movement extended to all aspects of the general election.

The Republican wave which hit Pennsylvania on Election Day – which flipped five of the state’s 19 congressional seats and gave the GOP full control in Harrisburg – was due to the maturation and co-ordination of the grassroots movements across the state, he said.

“I would say [the Republican takeover] was absolutely the result of this movement and this awakening. I don’t think it would have happened without the coming together and the maturing of this movement in Pennsylvania,” said Mr. Rohrer.

Mr. Corbett may have won the battle, but with two major Tea Party leaders – and several individuals who are sympathetic to the movement – included in his gubernatorial transition staff, the Tea Party may have won the war.