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Incumbents Get the Boot From Pennsylvania Voters

May 25, 2006 By:
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Robert Jubelirer
An insurgency within the statewide Republican Party resulted in stunning defeats for two of Pennsylvania's most powerful lawmakers, Senate Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer (R-District 30) and Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill (R-District 48). The two men had served in office a combined 56 years.

Before last week's landmark primary results, a Senate leader hadn't lost a challenge from within his own party since 1964. All told, 17 incumbent state legislators were swept from office; 13 of them were Republicans.

"Challengers were railing at their own party for acting like Democrats, and supporting Rendell's agenda," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.

Republican candidates such as John Eichelberger - the Blair County politician who defeated Jubelirer by 3,000 votes - ran a reformist campaign promoting fiscal conservatism, particularly tax and spending limits, all while harnessing voter anger over last year's ill-fated legislative pay hike.

Eichelberger, along with several other candidates - including Mike Folmer, the businessman from Lebanon, Pa., who defeated Brightbill - signed on to the "Promise to Pennsylvania," partially modeled after the 1994 "Contract With America" that propelled the GOP to control of both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

The Pennsylvania platform, which organizers are hoping will likewise ultimately launch their candidates toward victory in November, promises a comprehensive audit of state government, lobbying reform and budget-spending caps correlated to inflation and population growth.

"Bob Jubelirer lost the trust of the people he represents," claimed Eichelberger. "The pay raise was simply a trigger."

Madonna agreed that Eichelberger's bona fides as a social conservative - he's anti-abortion and supports a constitutional ban on gay marriage - may have helped him defeat Jubelirer, a relative moderate who in the past has supported pro-choice policies. He added, though, that the electoral insurgency was primarily about fiscal - and not social - issues.

Through a spokesman, David Atkinson, Jubelirer declined to comment on the election.

"Obviously, he believes that he assembled a record of service to taxpayers over time," Atkinson said of his boss.

Madonna thinks the battle for the heart of the state Republican Party could still lead to trouble for the GOP come Election Day. He said it's possible that more moderate Republican voters could be tempted to vote Democrat, or more likely stay home, rather than support ideologically conservative candidates.

'I Have an Agenda'

Robert Guzzardi, a Philadelphia businessman who supported Eichelberger, Folmer and the "Promise to Pa." conceded that Madonna may be right, but revealed that he didn't much care.

"Whether it weakens the Republican Party is irrelevant to me. I am a conservative, and I have an agenda," said Guzzardi, who sits on the Jewish Publishing Group's board of directors. "If the Republican Party wants to support the agenda of limited government and personal responsibility, great."

Interestingly enough, the showdown pitted Guzzardi - a board member of the Middle East Forum, who set his sights on the upper reaches of the General Assembly after a poll he commissioned early in the campaign showed that someone like Jubelirer would be vulnerable from an attack on the right - against one of the longest-serving leaders of the state Senate, who happened to be Jewish and even led a delegation of state legislators in a visit to Israel in 2004.

Greg Morris, the Democrat slated to face Eichelberger in November, said that - like Guzzardi - he's been interested in ousting Jubelirer out of office from the get-go.

The member of Temple Beth Israel in Altoona even contributed to Eichelberger's campaign, and only got on the ballot as an insurance in case Jubelirer did indeed prevail in the primary.

After Jubelirer's defeat, Morris had contemplated stepping aside.

Instead, he's now intent on fighting an uphill battle in a heavily Republican district.

"There has not been a Democratic state senator here in over 60 years," he stated. "There are parts of me that like Eichelberger a lot. But he's so right-wing."

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