In Trump’s absence, other Republican candidates shine

BY SALENA ZITO  szito@tribweb.com

The seventh and final GOP presidential debate before Iowa caucuses next Tuesday was an interesting event: in the absence of businessman Donald Trump, the exchanges were spirited, substantive and exhibited nearly none of the insults lofted in the earlier debates.

There were plenty of hard questions and tough exchanges between the candidates, but none of the chewing through scenery that happens when Trump is on stage.

Here is the rundown:

Marco Rubio had a solid night. He was organized, confident, credible and electable. When pressed by moderator Megyn Kelly, whose tough questions yielded little wiggle room for any candidate, Rubio was deft.

Bruce Haynes, GOP strategist at Purple Strategies in Washington, D.C., gives Rubio the win as the best debater of the night: “He also clearly had a strategy to focus on the evangelical vote, and he delivered on that strategy. He made it clear that his strong faith would influence how he governed, and that will benefit him with the many evangelical voters in Iowa.”

Jeb Bush had probably his best night to date. He was much more thoughtful, less awkward – as if with Trump gone he finally found his sea legs.

Rand Paul was a solid statesmen, in command of the issues. He was effective, eloquent and – without playing defense on Trump’s jabs – was able to relax and ultimately shine on his positions on criminal justice, surveillance, immigration and liberty.

Ted Cruz rolled out with a jab at Trump, but had probably his flattest performance to date. Haynes argues he even suffered a bit of setback. “He was his usual strong self in some areas, but was whiny and defensive too often,” Haynes said, noting an exchange with Chris Wallace went poorly for Cruz and some of his one liners fell flat.

John Kasich and Chris Christie had their moments, but in truth everyone was gunning for Iowa, and this is not their state. Both men are focusing on New Hampshire, the second contest in twelve days.

Ben Carson was all but barely there.

Trump, who decided 24 hours earlier he would not attend the debate, instead held a separate event to campaign and raise money for Veterans. The event was pure Borsht Belt, including a moment when he encouraged his married pregnant daughter, who is not due for weeks, to give birth in Iowa for votes: “I said, Ivanka, it would be so great if you had your baby in Iowa! It would be so great, I would definitely win! Oh, I want that to happen!”

Biggest winner? The Republican primary electorate – who finally had the chance to scrutinize the candidates.

Biggest loser? Trump, by a landslide.

Rubio has doubled his support in Iowa in the past two weeks. Keep an eye on this guy Tuesday – he has the chance to pull a 2004 John Kerry over Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt.

Preparing for the worst (and re-election) – PA budget edition

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Experiences of the past seven months are causing Pennsylvania lawmakers to consider what will happen the next time they and the governor fail to pass an on-time budget.

With all the House and half the Senate up for re-election in 2016, many undoubtedly want to be able to tell their constituents they have a plan to prevent a similar stalemate in the future.

Senators and representatives are full of plans – here are just three from Sen. Patrick Stefano, R-Fayette County, Rep. Marguerite Quinn, R-Bucks County, and Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery County – on what should happen if, once again, they do not have a budget in place by June 30 – from what will happen to their salaries to the treatment of state-paid entities.

State Rep. Dan McNeill, D-Lehigh County, is one of many lawmakers who says he wants to suspend pay and per diems for legislators and administration officials if a budget is not passed on a timely basis.

“Games and posturing force the citizens of Pennsylvania to view us as ineffective and as not taking the state’s collective interests seriously,” he wrote in a December co-sponsorship memo.

Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, has a similar proposal to suspend pay, as well as one to make budget negotiations public.

Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, thinks the state needs to have a protocol for budget fights that might force lawmakers to get something done. A plan he circulated last week would require designated negotiating teams from the governor’s office and each of the four legislative causes to meet for at least 10 hours a day if a complete budget agreement is not in place by July 5, four days after the official start of the fiscal year.

Of the three senators mentioned above, only Ward is up for re-election this year; Stafano and Fontana will be up for re-election in 2018.

Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville, wants to give taxpayers a little something for the troubles: if a budget isn’t enacted on time, he proposes a suspension of personal and corporate net income taxes.

“The Taxpayer (sic) has been held hostage for far too long by budget negotiations with no voice and in the end are often left with less money in their paychecks once a budget is enacted,” he wrote in a co-sponsor memo to other lawmakers.

In the spirit of preparing for the worst but hoping for the best, any of these ideas could wind up on the table: Gov. Tom Wolf has to give a budget address next month for the 2016-2017 budget year that begins in July, when much is still unresolved in this current year’s budget, including hotly debated tax hikes or increases to public education funding.

As the Trib’s Brad Bumsted reports from Harrisburg, negotiating two budgets at once is uncharted territory. What’s more, the tax hikes favored by Wolf are an unlikely sell in an election year, just one facet of a state budget – and government – in a state of deep disorganization.

Judging by their ideas for the future, it doesn’t seem like lawmakers are anticipating things will get easier any time soon.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct two typos.

Sparks and substance mark South Carolina GOP Debate

BY SALENA ZITO  szito@tribweb.com

The Fox Business Network debate in South Carolina Thursday night with  Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Gov. Chris Christie, Senator Ted Cruz, Gov. John Kasich and Senator Marco Rubio went for two and half hours and was marked with jabs and emotion – Cruz attacked Trump, Rubio attacked Cruz, Cruz went back after Rubio, Christie also attacked Rubio and Bush smacked down Trump.

Kasich didn’t go after anyone but focused on himself, and Ben Carson seemed to be snoozing through the entire event.

First the high and low lights:

Trump suggested that Cruz’s Canadian birth certificate is a disqualifier, but Cruz said the businessman’s change of heart on the issue is simply a reaction to the polls shifting in favor of Cruz: “The Constitution hasn’t changed, but the poll numbers have,” Cruz said.

It was a notable moment because the audience booed Trump.

After a heated and sometimes comical exchange, Rubio jumped in saying: “I hate to interrupt this episode of Court TV.”

Cruz won that battle, but Trump outdid him in a later exchange in response to Cruz’s remarks that Trump embodied New York Values: “I think most people know exactly what New York values are,” he said, then launched into an emotional outline of the city’s response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

Analysis:

“There was no clear winner in tonight’s debate,” said Bruce Haynes, founding partner of Purple Strategies in Washington, D.C.

“Ted Cruz had some of the highest and lowest points of the debate,” said Haynes. “He started very strong, but Donald Trump humiliated him by invoking 9/11 with respect to ‘New York values,’ and Marco Rubio ripped his record apart in a very combative exchange late in the debate.”

Trump’s invocation of 9/11 was possibly the most poignant moment of the night, said Haynes: “He has improved his debate skills, but he still gets exposed for lack of knowledge and expertise, particularly in foreign affairs and macro economics.”

Rubio disappeared at times but delivered the strongest and most eloquent defense of the Second Amendment, and he hammered Ted Cruz on his record very hard at the end, said Haynes.

“Generally Trump, Cruz and Rubio continued to demonstrate that they are the most gifted communicators in the race, further justifying their positions at the top of the polls,” said Haynes.

Haynes said he didn’t expect the debate created any fundamental change in the course of the race.

Chip Felkel, a South Carolina Republican strategist not affiliated with any campaign, said it was a lively debate, as expected. “The moderators did a much better job than we’ve seen in some of the earlier debates, and the candidates stuck mostly to making their points without getting into too much arguing,” he said.

The sub plots of who feels compelled to take a shot at who, is getting really interesting, said Felkel.

“It was thankfully, an unusually substantive debate,” said Felkel. “Bush had a good night, but could have used more air time,” he said. “Still, he challenged Trump’s position on keeping out all Muslims, and what that will do to our ability to actually build alliances needed to fight ISIS.”

“Rubio and Cruz’s back and forth on immigration and who supports what was anticipated and lively, as was Cruz and Trump on who’s really qualified to serve as president.”

Felkel says South Carolina voters know that they are going to once again be in a position to make or break some candidacies because the race is not going to settle out prior to Feb 20th. “To their credit, I think the candidates showed a solid command of a wide range of issues,” he said.

Given the time Bush has invested in the state, he could see some real benefit from tonight said Felkel.

“Rubio got in his points, though he continues to come across a tad too scripted,” said Felkel, who described Rubio’s dislike for Cruz as visceral.

“Trump  and Cruz knew they needed to go after each other – and did, and I think Cruz won the day, but maybe not the war,” said Felkel.

“The surprise of the night was Christie,” he said. “He was feisty and had a command of the issues.”  But Felkel noted he’s not sure that matters in South Carolina because Christie has spent little time and resources there.

Here is Felkel’s report card:

  • Trump B-
  • Christie B+
  • Cruz B+
  • Bush B+
  • Rubio B
  • Kasich C
  • Carson C

Hillary ‘feeling the Bern’ in Iowa and New Hampshire polls

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) holds a news conference after he announced his candidacy for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, on Capitol Hill in Washington April 30, 2015.  (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)
U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) holds a news conference after he announced his candidacy for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, on Capitol Hill in Washington April 30, 2015. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

BY SALENA ZITO  szito@tribweb.com

Hillary Clinton is quite literally feeling the burn of her closest competitor, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, as he side swipes her in both Iowa and New Hampshire in polls released today.

The Vermont socialist jumped ahead of the former Secretary of State in the latest Quinnipiac Poll, marking the first time he has captured the lead in Iowa – the numbers showed Sanders with 49 percent of likely caucus goers’ support compared to Clinton’s 44.

His surge marks a 9-point gain, with Clinton experiencing a 7 percentage point drop in support. In September he held a 1 point lead over Clinton, 41 to 40 — another 12 percent said they would support Vice President Joe Biden.

There was even a more seismic shift in support towards Sanders in New Hampshire, where he is leading by 14 points: a new poll from Monmouth University shows Sanders with 53 percent towering over Clinton’s 39.

Both polls show a sharp sift in support both towards Sanders and away from Clinton. Both polls show former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, the only other candidate competing for the Democrat nomination, holding steady at 4 or 5 percent.

In 2008, ten days before the first caucus in Iowa, Clinton’s early double digit lead had evaporated under sharp attacks from then-senators Barack Obama and John Edwards. Obama won the caucuses. Edwards came in second, and Clinton came in a humiliating third place. She boarded a plane at midnight the night of the contest, and headed straight to New Hampshire, where she battled back and a week later squeaked out a victory.

On Tuesday, Vice President Joe Biden piled on a bit with the Clinton discomfort by praising Sanders for understanding voters’ frustration on the growing income inequality.

“Bernie is speaking to a yearning that is deep and real, and he has credibility on it,” Biden said during an interview on CNN Monday evening. “And that is the absolute enormous concentration of wealth in a small group of people with the new class now being able to be shown being left out.”

He added that Clinton hasn’t been as focused on income inequity as long as Sanders had: “It’s relatively new for Hillary to talk about that,” Biden said. “Hillary’s focus has been other things up to now, and that’s been Bernie’s. No one questions Bernie’s authenticity on those issues.”

Shuster announces he’s running for another term

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

U.S. Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Everett, is officially running for re-election in Pennsylvania’s 9th Congressional District, setting up a primary rematch with a conservative outsider candidate.

bill shusterShuster, a congressman since 2001 and chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, announced his re-election bid during a Monday morning conference call with reporters.

Shuster defeated challengers Art Halvorson and Travis Schooley in a three-way Republican primary in 2014. This year Halvorson is making another bid, pointing to Shuster as a career politician entrenched in Washington’s establishment.

But Shuster said his record as a conservative is strong. He pointed to attempts to defund Obamacare, his plans to remove air traffic control from the government’s oversight, and his ability to broker bipartisan compromise, like ushering through a long-term transportation plan that did not increase taxes.

“I’m gonna go out there and put my record on the line, and let the people of the 9th District decide,” Shuster said.

Shuster paired his candidacy with the rest of the GOP, underscoring what he said was a need for conservatives in all branches of government to pass their policies.

“We’ve got to work hard as Republicans to elect a Republican president and keep a Republican majority in the House and the Senate,” Shuster said.

Shuster didn’t choose a favorite in the packed presidential primary that currently has Donald Trump ahead in the polls, but he said he’ll support “whoever can beat Hillary Clinton.”

Shuster disparaged Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee, saying she’d bring more of President Barack Obama’s “liberal agenda” to the White House.

He said he anticipates a leader will emerge as Pennsylvania’s April primary draws closer.

“I’m tired of being defensive,” he said. “I want to be there when we elect a Republican president.”

Toomey campaign memo focuses on November

PTR-Toomey-051615BY SALENA ZITO  szito@tribweb.com

Lehigh Valley Republican U. S. Sen. Pat Toomey began this week with an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer with former governor Tom Ridge that sharply criticized Secretary of State John Kerry’s assessment that Iran is in full compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran Deal.

Calling Iran’s compliance “a proven lie,” Toomey said he would urge his fellow Democratic senators who supported the president’s agreement with Iran in 2015 to challenge the president to maintain strict enforcement.

Toomey ends the week with the attached memo obtained by the Tribune-Review to be distributed to the Pennsylvania state committee winter meeting next weekend detailing his strengths, challenges and insistence that in his re-election contest, he will not take anything for granted.

Toomey faces an intense re-election campaign this fall: his seat is one of the most important the national Republicans must keep to hold their majority in the U.S. Senate.

Three Democrats will face off in an April primary to determine who challenges him: former congressman Joe Sestak, who narrowly lost to Toomey in 2010; Katie McGinty, the establishments pick; and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, the wildcard who could upset the cart if he gains money and traction.

Toomey knows he has several things working against him. He is running during a presidential year, which usually motivates Democratic voters and when the top of the party ticket can impact those below; he also is a moving target for outside Democrat money who would love to see the Democrats win back control of the senate.

Late last month the Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC launched a $1.5 million digital advertising campaign targeting several Republicans up for reelection in  2016, including Toomey. The digital ads ran on Twitter, Facebook and along the side rail of digital Google searches.

Here is the Toomey memo:

To: County GOP Chairs
From: Peter Towey, Campaign Manager
Date: January 7, 2016
Re: The 2016 U.S. Senate Race in Pennsylvania
___________________________________________________________________________
A year ago, as we entered the campaign cycle at the beginning of 2015, we pointed out how Sen. Pat Toomey was well positioned for reelection. We noted the “myth of the presidential year” – the consistent historic pattern of Republican U.S. Senators winning reelection at the same time Republican presidential candidates lost in Pennsylvania. We noted the Toomey electoral record of winning four general elections in Pennsylvania and losing none, and the
Toomey record of substance that led the Philadelphia Inquirer to comment that “It should be comforting to Pennsylvanians that their junior senator isn’t afraid to reach across the aisle to the benefit of all Americans.”

As we turn the page to the election year itself, Pat Toomey is even better positioned.
* Record
In 2015, Sen. Toomey continued to achieve results for Pennsylvanians by spearheading the passage of first-of-its-kind bipartisan legislation to protect children from predators in schools.
Continuing his focus on public safety and support for law enforcement, Sen. Toomey introduced the Thin Blue Line Act, which creates tougher penalties for criminals targeting law enforcement officers and first responders. He also pushed back on the Obama Administration’s effort to strip law enforcement of critical tools they need to keep our streets safe and passed bipartisan legislation through the Senate to better protect federal corrections officers.

Sen. Toomey was also instrumental in ensuring that multiple pro-growth, bipartisan causes he has fought for were added to the annual tax code legislation. As a result, Sen. Toomey and a coalition of lawmakers from both parties were able to suspend ObamaCare’s harmful medical device tax. Two additional measures Sen. Toomey introduced with Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) were also included. These bills will make it easier for small businesses to grow by allowing them to expense equipment purchases and
foster innovation by making the research and development tax credit permanent. Finally, Sen. Toomey and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) renewed their push to repeal the anticonsumer ethanol mandate, which has been touted in multiple editorials and opinion columns across the country.

Sen. Toomey also took a leadership role in forcefully opposing President Obama’s disastrous deal with Iran that will give the leading state sponsor of terrorism billions of dollars and create a pathway for them to develop nuclear weapons in the coming years.

* Opponents
National and state Democratic Party bosses spent the first half of 2015 desperately searching for anyone to oppose the badly flawed ex-Congressman Joe Sestak.

The list of those they coveted is lengthy: Congressman Bob Brady, Congressman Matt Cartwright, Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, State Senator Vincent Hughes, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, ex-Congressman Chris Carney, ex-Congresswoman Allison Schwartz, Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams, Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper, ex-Congressman Patrick Murphy, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, former Governor Ed Rendell, and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski.

After all of those options were exhausted, the Washington establishment decided that settling for Katie McGinty, the last place finisher from the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary election, was an upgrade.

The party bosses have continued to shower McGinty with endorsements, but she has otherwise been unimpressive as a candidate. Meanwhile, Sestak, who has done nothing to alter his extreme liberal record or positions, continues to lead in primary polls and cash-onhand. He and McGinty will undoubtedly fight it out to see who can move farthest to the left in the primary. They will be aided in that by the third candidate in the race, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, whose policy positions include legalization of all drugs. Meanwhile, the Republican Party is united behind Pat Toomey.

Democrats’ intraparty fight haunts second U.S. Senate campaign,
Associated Press, April 12, 2015

Dems in disarray in must-win Pennsylvania Senate race,
Politico, May 21, 2015

Meet The Democratic Senate Candidate Who Drives Democrats Crazy
National Journal, February 19, 2015

Splintered Primary is Latest Problem for Pennsylvania Democrats: Pennsylvania Dems in shambles leading into 2016, Washington Free Beacon, October 15, 2015

Dem Senate Recruit Advised Federal Energy Regulators While Employed by Green Energy Firms: Blurred lines between Kathleen McGinty’s policy, business interests
Washington Free Beacon, July 28, 2015

McGinty disclosure form gets quick correction
Philadelphia Inquirer, December 4, 2015

* Polling

Real Clear Politics lists fifteen public polls conducted in 2015 in the U.S. Senate matchup between Toomey and Sestak. Toomey led in every one of them, by an average margin of 10.25 points. In a matchup between Toomey and McGinty, there were six public polls conducted in 2015. Toomey led in every one of them too, with an average margin was 11.33 points.
Toomey Up in Early Pennsylvania Poll
Weekly Standard, May 11, 2015

Polls put Republican Pat Toomey ahead of Democratic challengers
Morning Call, June 22, 2015

Poll: Sestak leads McGinty, but Toomey rules them all
Tribune-Review (Off-Road Politics blog), August 27, 2015.

* Money
The Toomey campaign ended 2015 with $9.6 million in the bank. At the end of the comparable time in Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey’s reelection campaign, he had less than half of that ($4.4 million) in the bank. In 2015, the Toomey campaign received 27,590 contributions, with 85% of those being small dollar donations of under $200. We will not know the cash numbers for Sestak, McGinty, and Fetterman until they release them later this month, but it is unlikely any will exceed $3 million. That leaves Toomey with more than a
3:1 cash advantage, which will only grow larger as the Democrats spend their money in a heavily contested primary.
* Conclusion
The Toomey campaign is taking nothing for granted. We have organizations built in every county. We have thousands of volunteers, local leaders, and donors. We will not be outorganized or out-worked by any opponent. We are pleased with our strong position, but we know Pennsylvania elections are very competitive, and we fully expect this one to be hard fought and close. We look forward to a great victory in November.

Can Pennsylvania handle a recession?

national recession preparednessBY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

As if a seven-month budget stalemate weren’t indicator enough of Pennsylvania’s precarious economic position, a new study examining financial preparedness says the commonwealth is ill-prepared for economic hard times.

Pennsylvania’s lack of a rainy day fund leaves it unprepared for an economic recession, according to research from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The study, called “Weathering the Next Recession: How Prepared Are the 50 States?” examines which states have fund balances squirreled away in case of fiscal emergencies – funds they could rely on instead of raising taxes.

Mercatus notes the state’s savings account had a zero fund balance in 2014.

rainy day fund

Pennsylvania – which still does not have a budget let alone a rainy day fund – ranks 49th out of 50 in the study.

The state’s previous fund balance was depleted during the Great Recession, as the state needed to transfer money to general fund beginning in the 2009-2010 budget and onward.

Mercatus figures are dated 2014. A Senate Appropriations Committee memo dated June 2015 noted that the state does have a fund balance of $231,000 in the rainy day fund, “an amount that would support the state government for about four minutes.”

Whew.

“A few short years after the Great Recession, some states have managed to bounce back and prepare for the worst-case scenario,” said the study’s author, economist Erick Elder of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “Others failed to learn from the experience.”

Across the border, West Virginia ranks second in preparedness, with a fund balance in 2014 of $956 million that has steadily climbed over the past five years.

If Pennsylvania lawmakers wanted to start saving up, Mercatus cites a target of $1.32 billion for a rainy day fund to weather a typical recession, or 4.6 percent of its revenue. A severe recession would need about $3.43 billion to get by.

Pennsylvania also has a pension problem: its pension systems are underfunded by tens of billions, and the plan to remedy the issue requires increasingly large portions of each new budget.

Given that the Republican-controlled legislature appears largely disinclined to raise taxes even in the current economic environment, the study raises the question of what would happen if a recession did hit – would they take the vote then?

A partially-passed state budget has put a dent in the stalemate between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican legislative leaders that allows some state funds to flow out to schools and human service agencies, but there’s still no consensus on big-picture policy changes like new taxes, pension reform, or liquor privatization.

So maybe they can start planning for a savings, too?

“No one knows exactly when the next recession may hit, and fortunately, no recession seems imminent at the national level,” Mercatus researchers write. “This new research shows that even ill-prepared states may still have time to fully fund their rainy day funds, shielding taxpayers and residents who rely on government services from future pain.”