Thursday, May 18, 2006

Conservative or Just Revolting

I'm going to register my dissent from the emerging meme that the "Pennsylvania Revolt" in the GOP primary essentially was a popular uprising against "a state legislature that rejected conservative values".

The confusion is understandable, since the incumbents who were overturned were those who engaged in the kind of reckless spending and money-grubbing conservatives despise.

But this was a single-issue revolt, and while it involved an essentially conservative principle, it also is an essentially human one: Nobody out here is getting a 16% raise overnight, and nobody likes to see his public servants vote themselves one, out of his pocket.

If you dig down into the debates and position statements among the candidates before the election, you'll find there's not a whole lot of difference between incumbents and insurgents. Except on the pay raise question. Given opportunities to raise broader conservative issues, the incumbents generally declined. In fact, sometimes their attacks were based on lack of service to the community -- i.e. not funneling enough money into the home district (in this case, to fight big box stores). Hardly a conservative standard.

If it truly had been a grassroots conservative uprising, two races that were not tainted by the legislative pay raise issue would have turned out differently.

One was the GOP primary race for the nomination to replace Lancaster County farmer Noah Wenger, who is retiring, in the 36th District state Senate seat. Neither candidate was tainted by the pay raise issue. But Michael Brubaker, the moderate (for these parts), consensus-building, party-endorsed candidate trounced the firebrand conservative challenger Heidi Wheaton, who ran a well-financed insurgency campaign based on a right-flank run around Brubaker.

Absent a pay-raise taint, the party candidate won handily.

[He still has to pass a test in the fall, however. He'll face Jason Leisey, a promising young wounded-in-action Iraq war veteran.]

The other was the special election in the Chester County 19th state Senate District to replace Bob Thompson, who died Jan. 28. Andrew Dinniman, a long-time prominent Democrat, beat Republican Carol Aichele in a historic upset.

There was some inter-party resentlent against Aichele, from what I hear, for jumping to the head of the line in the hierarchy, and she was a moderate, a Starbucks Republican. But this result hardly comports with a grassroots conservative revolt. It does, however, reflect slow demographic shifts, hard work by the Democrats, and generic, non-directional voter anger at the status quo.

The turnout there actually was a few points higher than the statewide; though it's hard to draw exact conclusions from that alone, it doesn't suggest large numbers of conservatives sitting at home.

[Disclosure: I knew Andy back in the old days when I covered Chester County; he's a decent man and a hard-working, likeable politician, and a Democrat through and through.]

UPDATE: More evidence that it wasn't purely a conservative revolt:

Nearly 22,000 Pennsylvania Republicans who voted for Lynn Swann as the GOP nominee for governor withheld their support from U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum in Tuesday's primary.

Glad to see I had company.