Wave of GOP primary challengers seek Harrisburg shakeup over mail-in voting, pandemic response
These conservative candidates who feel let down and left out of the process can be evenly divided into two camps, Knepper argued
House Speaker Bryan Cutler speaks at a evening press conference after the House voted to end Gov. Tom Wolf’s disaster emergency on June 7, 2021. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
Driven by anger that started building up two years ago during the early days of COVID, Pennsylvania’s legislative Republicans face double-digit challenges in next month’s primary elections.
Among those who face opponents are House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, both chambers’ top budget officials — House and Senate Appropriations Committee chairs Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York, and Sen. Pat Browne, R-Lehigh — and a handful of other minor members of leadership, as well as a number of rank-and-file members.
Leo Knepper, executive director of the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, has a long history of aiding upstarts against Republican incumbents, starting with the 2005 pay raise. So he’s seen anti-incumbent efforts rise and fall before.
But judging from his conversations with the challengers who’ve approached him, he said that there is a better chance of such a wave washing over Harrisburg’s GOP establishment this year than any he’s seen in the past.
“The days of people looking to leadership to have a plan are behind us because most of the people I talk to are finally realizing there is no plan,” Knepper told the Capital-Star.
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These conservative candidates who feel let down and left out of the process can be evenly divided into two camps, Knepper argued: Those drawn into politics in opposition to the pandemic lockdowns of 2020 and those who are “animated by Act 77.”
The latter, the 2019 law which allows all Pennsylvanians to vote by mail without an excuse, passed the Republican-controlled General Assembly and was signed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
Since, Republicans have soured on the law. Harrisburg Republicans have focused on how state Supreme Court rulings modified the law — approving ballot drop off boxes, for instance, and giving voters three extra days to return ballots in 2020 amid postal delays.
But in parallel with Pennsylvania Republicans, former President Donald Trump targeted mail-in ballots, falsely, as rife with fraud.
Rank-and-file supporters of Trump have also followed his lead, criticizing the very existence of mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania, and by extension, nearly every sitting Republican legislator.
One of those critical of Act 77 is Anne Weston, a 53-year-old chiropractic assistant from Lancaster County, who is challenging Cutler.
Weston said in an email she decided to run for office based on frustration with “the continual helplessness of our elected representatives in the face of obvious violations.”
Her website cites, for instance, Cutler’s votes for both the last gas tax hike and for the University of Pittsburgh’s funding amid questions about research using fetal tissue.
She also specifically cites “violations of election integrity,” with her website linking to Audit the Vote PA, a grassroots group that has pushed unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud based on their own analysis of the state’s voter rolls.
“Have we always had election fraud? Perhaps. Was it worse in 2020? Absolutely – explore the details,” her site reads.
Weston added in an email that “Act 77 was badly conceived, pushed through without thoroughly informing the constituents, and poorly implemented, aside from questions of constitutionality or legality.”
She calls for the repeal of Act 77, approval of voter ID, and making Election Day a national holiday, among other policies, to restore trust in election results.
The law is currently in legal limbo. A lower court struck it down as unconstitutionally enacted, although the state Supreme Court has stayed that ruling from taking effect as it reaches its own decision.
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In an interview, Cutler, who helped shepherd Act 77 through the Legislature and stood by Wolf’s side when he signed it, told the Capital-Star that he stood by his vote.
And a finding that the law is unconstitutional, Cutler said, would risk unintentionally eliminating other parts of the state’s election law, such as a statute allowing the spouses of military members to vote by mail.
Instead, he was angry with the state Supreme Court for interpreting the law to allow drop boxes, suspending signature verification, and giving voters three extra days to return ballots.
“I think most folks would agree that we never saw the court overstepping their constitutional boundaries this far,” Cutler said. “That’s what frustrates me.”
Cutler added that the Legislature fought the decision up to the U.S. Supreme Court twice, though it was unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, legislatively, the House GOP did pass an omnibus election bill in 2021 that included voter ID — although it stopped short of a full repeal of Act 77. Wolf vetoed it.
“I don’t know if we’ll find a solution with this governor or not, but it’s certainly my hope that if we don’t get it fixed with this governor, it has to be fixed for the next one,” Cutler said.
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The other factor, widespread anger at the COVID-19 shutdowns in spring 2020 are what motivate Robert Rossman, a 43-year-old Coudersport, Pa. resident and café owner. He faces state Rep. Marty Causer, R-Potter, who chairs the House Republican Policy Committee.
“I’m just a small business guy who’s had enough,” Rossman told the Capital-Star. “I’m tired of being pushed around, and I’m not the only one.”
Rossman said he thought that Causer and legislative Republicans should have taken a stronger stand against Wolf’s pandemic mediation measures than they did.
The 2021 constitutional amendments that the GOP put on the ballot to limit Wolf and future governor’s emergency powers, he said, was a “little too late.”
He also blamed Causer for not taking action to keep employers in the upstate region, which now relies on tourism for much of its economy, he said.
Rossman acknowledged that many have run for Harrisburg on a platform of change. What would make 2022 different, he argued, is a certain gubernatorial ticket, half of which has already offered him backing — gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Doug Mastriano’s running mate Teddy Daniels.
“I’ve been endorsed by Teddy Daniels,” Rossman said. “If we can have Daniels in there, and Doug Mastriano in there, and others like me, we’re going to get sh*t done.”
The pair’s mix of business and military background, Rossman argued, would help them cut through Harrisburg’s dysfunction.
Citizens Alliance has yet to weigh in on any races, legislative or gubernatorial, and Rossman said he hasn’t asked for their endorsement. But to Knepper, the reason this year could be different has nothing to do with who is or isn’t in the governor’s mansion.
Legislative leaders, Knepper noted, get their power from party discipline among the rank-and-file members.
In the past, there existed among Republicans a “go along to get along” caucus who’d mostly put their trust in leadership and stand behind their decisions.
However, that caucus has shrunk in recent years due to retirements and primaries, while the number who want to stand on their conservative principles has expanded.
So even if Cutler, Saylor, and others hold on, there may be enough pressure internally to force leadership to either bring conservative priorities up for a vote or have them step aside for a team that will, Knepper argued.
“Even if these leaders win, I feel like the caucus they are presiding over is going to be much more rambunctious,” Knepper said, “and I mean that in the best possible way.”
Still, Republicans have expressed confidence that their leadership team, and their approach, will win the day come May 17.
State Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, the House Republican Caucus Secretary, told the Capital-Star that “being a middle of the road, kind of a thoughtful elected official, is really important to find that common ground that everyone can kind of get along with, instead of having a more polarized Commonwealth.”
“So I hope voters do keep that in mind this year,” she added.
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