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Friends and foes
• Aument-Denlinger supporters accuse foes of hypocrisy in GOP primary race for the 36th Senatorial District.
• Franklin & Marshall pollster G. Terry Madonna weighs in on campaign strategies.
• May 8 debate does little to separate candidates who share equal rating from American Conservative Union.
• Expert predicts 20-25 percent voter turnout for May 20 GOP primary.
by Patrick Burns
Under normal circumstances the 36th Senatorial District Republican primary ballot would reflect the traditional GOP precept of one candidate per job opening.
Take for instance the 14 names on Tuesday’s ballot for 14 open Republican Lancaster County Committee slots.
But circumstances are far from normal in the 36th where Rep. Gordon Denlinger, 50, from Narvon, decided to challenge the party’s committee-endorsed 37-year-old candidate, Rep. Ryan Aument of Landisville.
At the Lancaster County GOP convention in February, committee members chose to endorse Aument for State Senator to succeed retiring State Senator Michael Brubaker.
On the surface these local conservative State Reps. are friends who garnered an identical American Conservative Union ratings of 75 percent.
Those ratings are based on issues of legislative action, including domestic energy production, healthcare, government reform, climate change, border security, foreign policy, and social issues.
So, suddenly GOP voters in the 36th District face the off-script question of whether or not to endorse the decision of the GOP committee endorsers.
That script veered further into unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory last week when Aument and Denlinger sparred and criticized openly during a debate in Lititz on Thursday.
And that ugliness – though mostly pent-up during the debate – hasn’t rested well with many grumbling party members including upper echelon veterans such as U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts.
“I don’t like it. Don’t like party fighting. I follow Ronald Reagan’s theory that Republicans don’t criticize Republicans,” Pitts said while attending a civics assembly at Warwick High School in Lititz on Tuesday.
Denlinger at the May 8 debate said Aument’s campaign “had run off the rails” and he was “embarrassed” by Aument’s “photo-shopped” mailers that linked him to former Gov. Ed Rendell and President Obama.
Aument accused Denlinger of embracing a climate in Harrisburg that rewards longevity and perks.
Meanwhile supporters of both Aument and Denlinger have labeled the opposition hypocritical.
Do both have a point?
Surely Denlinger, who benefited from the committee-endorsement system for years, never complained about “the system” until it worked against him in this campaign.
No one can remember Aument or the local GOP committee chastising Denlinger’s acceptance of mileage reimbursements as a de facto “pay raise” before last week’s debate.
The only remaining question: Which strategy wins?
Franklin & Marshall pollster G. Terry Madonna suggested there’s a precedent for Denlinger’s underdog strategy that’s been described as the “outsider being bullied by the party elite.”
“Given how Scott Wagner in York used that argument effectively, (Denlinger) hopes it will help him among those GOP voters that don’t like the endorsement process, and who could be alienated from the party,” Madonna said.
Wagner pulled off an astonishing upset – running a campaign that stood against the political authorities of both parties – to triumph in a special election for the state Senate seat in which he garnered 10,600 write-in votes
Denlinger and his supporters hope to capitalize with a focusing on a similar lack of “fairness” within the committee system, Madonna said.
“Also think fairness, which is really the message (Denlinger) wants to leave voters with &tstr; that he’s being treated unfairly,” he said. “And really, do you really believe that consistency and politics go in the same sentence.”
On the other hand, Aument’s approach as selling himself as fiscal watchdog who differs from Denlinger will no doubt appeal to more hardcore conservatives, Madonna said.
During the debate, Denlinger rebuffed Aument’s challenge to refuse mileage reimbursements in the future as Aument does.
Aument has also harped on Denlinger’s acceptance of per diems which have become a symbol for reformers of waste and greed in Harrisburg which really gained traction after the infamous 2005 legislative pay hike, Madonna said.
“Not really an issue before that,” Madonna said. “It appeals to Tea Party conservatives and also some traditional conservatives as another example of what’s wrong with Harrisburg. In most elections it has not been defining to voters.”
Madonna suggested that Aument’s message may resonate with the GOP primary electorate which “will be more conservative than the Republican general electorate, just as the Democratic primary electorate is more liberal that its voters in the general.”
“(Focusing on) less spending not more, except in education is probably helpful, and remember here we are not talking about core services, just perks,” he said.
Ultimately Madonna was not ready to conclude the race would be decided by the perception of negative campaigning by Aument – which Denlinger has backfired into a positive for his campaign.
“The real question is (negative campaigning) a defining issue?” Madonna asked. “Yes it’s an issue but it’s still narrow, and the point is trying to make Denlinger out to be just another self interested lawmaker using his position to advantage himself.”
In the end, the race, which Madonna expects to draw only about 20 to 25 percent of Republican registered voters, will be a point of comparison and distinction between the two.
He said the impact of negative campaigning on Lancaster County voters depends on three variables: “It has to be credible, fair, and important to them.”
“The substance of what (Aument and Denlinger) do &tstr; how effective are they in their jobs &tstr; what they try to get done, or not, are far more relevant,” Madonna said.