As we put the spring primary season in the rear-view mirror and slowly turn into the summer block party season, it is always helpful to evaluate oneself and take an inventory about where exactly we are as a party before we get to the bumpy road that is the fall general election.
The past year has been something of a whirlwind for the Schuylkill County Republican Party. Never before has the local GOP so drastically veered from the beaten path of status quo politics. We elected new leadership and instituted historic reforms to the county committee by-laws. With change came a plethora of fresh faces, like the 300-member strong Schuylkill County Conservatives, into the fold. All of a sudden, for the first time in decades, the Grand OLD Party was growing. The voters rewarded the party for its new tone last fall as Republicans reclaimed the 125th state house seat as Mike Tobash shellacked two-term incumbent, Tim Seip, and Jerry Knowles won re-election to the 124th in record fashion.
However, it wasn’t all flower petals and love songs. Old rivalries within the GOP persisted and bitterness among the fallen leadership rose to a fever pitch. This was no more apparent than in the primary race for county commissioner. On one side, there was Larry Padora, the newly minted Vice Chairman of the party and very vocal standard-bearer of the reform wing. In the other corner, was veteran war-horse and poster boy of the way things used to be in Schuylkill County politics, three-term incumbent County Commissioner, Frank Staudenmeier. In the middle, was everybody’s favorite insurance salesman and philanthropic enthusiast, George Halcovage, who sought to straddle the canyon between the “old guard” and the “new turks”.
The campaign season opened with the first-ever Candidate Forum at Pine View Acres. More than 150 people attended this presentation, where every candidate who had successfully circulated petitions was permitted time to introduce themselves to the electorate. There, every candidate spoke about the importance of party unity and answered tough issue-oriented questions from the audience. A few weeks later, the County Committee hosted its endorsement meeting, where in the past, a privileged few were crowned “the party’s pick”. However, this year, surprisingly every candidate asked the committee to cast a ballot for an open primary, which they did unanimously. Next came the spring dinner, where a record number of people lined up to celebrate being a Republican, at Summit View Restaurant. Then, the focus of the campaigns turned to editorial board interviews, door to doors, bulk mailers, and radio advertisements, to bring the ship home. Finally, in the crucial last days of the primary, State Senator David Argall (R-29) publicly endorsed Staudenmeier and Halcovage as a last gasp to remain relevant.
In the end, though, the biggest determining factor wasn’t who the party leadership hand-picked or who incumbent politicians wanted by their side. Rather, the key to victory ended up being the old stand-by . . . turnout. With a hotly contested district magistrate race churning out a record number of voters in his own backyard and an oppressive torrential downpour keeping voters indoors in the southern and eastern parts of the county, Staudenmeier defeated Padora with a clear plurality. To his credit, though, Padora turned in a respectable 23% of the vote and trounced every candidate in the 124th legislative district by a 2 to 1 margin. “Staud” was joined on the ballot by Halcovage, who was fueled by Argall’s endorsement and team-up with Staudenmeier. He ran up the score in his home base of Pottsville and its suburbs, and shared “Staud”‘s bounty up north and out west to nip Padora by a few percentage points county-wide.
Am I disappointed in the results? Heck, yeah.
In my mind, Larry Padora would have made an excellent county commissioner and ambassador for our area. He embodied everything that is good about Schuylkill County. Simple roots. Hard worker. Self-made man. But, it just wasn’t in the cards this time. Frank and George ran a hell of a campaign, the “old guard” circled the wagons and got their guys elected, and a blow was struck to the inflated egos of the “new turks”.
That said, I think the party as a whole is better off. Under the old system, leadership would have hand-picked their favorites, the voters wouldn’t have cared, and the candidates would have sat on their hands until September. However, what happened this year was that each candidate was out in the community taking their message straight to the voters doorsteps and the party hosted a variety of events to get the not-so-political people more involved from the outset. Now, every candidate, including those running for the first time, have a hard-fought electoral battle under their belts and are ready and primed for a war with the democrats come the fall. Someone like George Halcovage learned how to be a political candidate before stepping into the bright limelight that is a general election campaign. Plus, with the fierce competition, all of our candidates will have increased name recognition with the general electorate. How can that be a bad thing?
So, going forward, where are we?
Internally, we have a détente of the superpowers. The “old guard” controls the incumbent politicians and the bulk of the fundraising cash. The “new turks” control the County Committee and the grassroots/GOTV organizations. Without cooperation from both wings, not one GOP candidate will be able win this November. Nothing unites a divided party like a common enemy. Fortunately for the Schuylkill GOP, we have a corrupt county administration that has mismanaged government operations over the past four years so badly, that for just a few months, the fighting cousins within the Republican Party will be able to forget their own differences and concentrate on a common objective . . . bringing sanity back to the Courthouse.
Let’s all pray that they do.