Op-Ed: Bucks County is key to PA's GOP gubernatorial primary

·5 min read

Long considered a Pennsylvania bellwether, Bucks County is well-trodden ground for presidential hopefuls and down-ballot statewide candidates.

In the days before the 2020 presidential election, for instance, Joe Biden visited Lower Bucks’ blue-collar Bristol Township, while Donald Trump campaigned in wealthy Upper Makefield. The county — with rural parts in the north, traditional middle- and upper-income suburbs in the center, and working-class communities in its lower townships — is a microcosm of the Keystone State. This year, as growing suburbs continue to shape elections, Bucks will play a big role in determining the Republican Party’s electoral prospects in a highly anticipated gubernatorial race.

Bucks historically follows national electoral trends. In 2020, for example, though Biden carried the county by 17,345 votes, Bucks voters added a new GOP state representative and reelected moderate Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick to a third term by 13 percentage points. Then, this past November, while Democrats enjoyed overall success in Philadelphia’s Democratic “collar” counties, the Bucks GOP swept every countywide row office and performed strongly down-ballot. Republicans’ countywide success was partially buoyed by support from a local parent, Paul Martino, and his Back to School PA political action committee, which funded candidates opposed to COVID-19 school closures. If anything, Bucks voters are open to splitting their tickets and tend to avoid the extremes of both political parties.

Thirteen Republican candidates for Pennsylvania governor took the debate stage Wednesday evening at Dickinson College in Carlisle.
Thirteen Republican candidates for Pennsylvania governor took the debate stage Wednesday evening at Dickinson College in Carlisle.

The county’s ticket-splitting Republican voters will help determine which gubernatorial candidate prevails in May’s closed primary election, in which 15 candidates are running. (On the Democratic side, Attorney General Josh Shapiro is currently the lone candidate.) With favorite son Jim Cawley — a former lieutenant governor and Bucks County commissioner — not in the race, southeastern Pennsylvania’s GOP political class hasn’t settled on a candidate. But last week, a kickoff debate at Dickinson College offered a preview of where candidates stand in a state profoundly affected by outgoing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic leadership.

Watched closely by GOP political operatives and grassroots activists, the event in Carlisle was less of a debate than a candidate showcase. Among the participants were Lehigh Valley restaurant owner Shawn Berger; Jake Corman, president pro tempore of the Pennsylvania state Senate; Bucks County native Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist and CEO of Harrisburg-based Quantum Communications; former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart of Allegheny County; state Sen. Scott Martin of Lancaster County; Jason Monn, former mayor of Erie County’s Corry City; Allegheny County attorney Jason Richey; John Ventre, a retired UPS executive from Westmoreland County; and Dr. Nche Zama, a Poconos-based cardiothoracic surgeon. They were joined by Philadelphia-area candidates Guy Ciarrocchi, CEO of the Chester County Chamber of Business & Industry and former chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Cawley; Joe Gale, a Montgomery County commissioner; Bill McSwain, former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania; and Dave White, a former Delaware County council member and businessman.

The candidates were aligned on major issues: keeping schools open, lowering taxes, and empowering the commonwealth’s energy industry. One Bucks political operative who watched the debate told me, “Scott Martin and Dave White were the candidates that exceeded expectations. Those two would perform really well in Bucks.” He added: “White, with his labor backing, could take the trade unions. Scott Martin is the frat guy you actually like.”

The field is strong and diverse, with candidates from all walks of life, ranging from Corman — a respected Harrisburg figure who won his retiring father’s state Senate seat in 1998 — to Zama, an immigrant from Cameroon and nationally recognized surgeon with an inspirational message. The debate stage was about evenly split between officeholders — current or former — and first-time candidates. The field speaks volumes about the energy of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party. The GOP’s grassroots momentum continues to grow, too: Democrats’ statewide voter-registration advantage is at its lowest point since 2005.

Following the debate, former U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, who retired from his southeastern Pennsylvania seat in 2018, praised the lesser-known candidates Monn and Berger, calling them “normal people, folks that walk down the street, your neighbors.” Speaking on the Pennsylvania Cable Network, Costello highlighted “the fact that they feel comfortable running on a Republican ticket and speaking to a room full of Republicans saying, ‘I want to be governor. These are the things that I care about.’” He added: “When a listener or when a viewer sees that, and they say I care about the same things and that candidate thinks the Republican Party is their party that speaks to them — that’s a very good thing for the party.”

Grassroots Republicans exemplify Costello’s sentiment. An attendee of a debate watch party at the United Republican Club in Northeast Philadelphia told me that the audience was split between hardcore politicos glued to the television and the more social members largely crowded around the bar. He observed that the more casual observers were drawn to an unlikely candidate, Berger, who hails from the Lehigh Valley.

Well-positioned at the front of the stage, notably shorter than the other candidates and wearing a somewhat-undone American flag tie, Berger certainly struck a contrast with the rest of the field. His digressions about refining vegetable oil in his backyard conveyed an authenticity that connected with voters. One of the hard-bitten pols in attendance was struck by how every Berger appearance was met with calls for quiet at the bar: “Shut up, he’s speaking!” Berger is a reminder that the political class’s perception of what appeals to voters remains shaky.

Many questions remain about the race. Will one of the lesser-known candidates break through in Bucks? Will one of the top contenders be able to clear the field? Stay tuned. The race will narrow after the March 8 deadline to file ballot paperwork.

Joseph Picozzi is the senior adviser for strategic planning at the Manhattan Institute. A Northeast Philadelphia native, he previously worked for House Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the Republican National Committee. This piece first appeared on RealClearPolitics.com

This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Op-Ed: Bucks County is key to PA's GOP gubernatorial primary

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