State GOP’s Spending Effort In County Election Paid Off

Rich Cholodofsky
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

The state Republican Committee targeted the Westmoreland County commissioners’ race based on voting trends, outspent its Democratic counterparts by an 11-1 margin and saw victory when voters elected Republicans Charles Anderson and Tyler Courtney as the new majority on the board.

The Harrisburg-based GOP panel doled out more than $110,000 during the fall campaign, according to campaign finance reports, while the Democratic candidates received just $10,000 from their state committee.

Through Anderson and Courtney, the GOP wrested control of the board of commissioners from the Democrats for the first time in more than a half century in a heated campaign marked by charges and countercharges among the candidates.

In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 8 election, the state Republican committee mailed out a series of campaign ads touting their party’s candidates and negative ads that targeted Democratic Commissioner Ted Kopas and his runningmate, Mt. Pleasant Mayor Gerald Lucia.

Kopas finished third in the race and secured a four-year term to serve as the minority commissioner.

State GOP officials said on Tuesday that early in the campaign the Westmoreland commissioners’ race was selected for special attention.

“We’ve seen Westmoreland County trend Republican over the last couple of cycles, and this year was a capstone year as we realized something larger was in play,” said GOP state committee spokeswoman Valerie Calas.

“This was a very special year, the first time in 50 years where we had an opportunity like this,” Calas said.

The GOP committee helped to secure wins in 13 other county courthouses this fall and now holds majorities in 52 of the state’s 67 counties.

Westmoreland was among the top five counties with elections fed by state committee cash this year, Calas said.

And the Anderson-Courtney team needed those funds.

Campaign finance reports show the GOP candidates raised $184,000 from June through the November election. The Democrats received more than $261,000 in donations during that time period.

The difference was in-kind contributions, which is money paid directly by the state committee for advertising, postage and other expenses rather than money donated directly to a campaign.

The GOP committee made $90,000 in in-kind contributions on behalf of Anderson and Courtney during the weeks before the election. It made another $20,000 in in-kind contributions in the final days.

The Democratic candidates received just $10,000 in cash from their state committee. There was no additional in-kind spending from the Democrats.

“That’s all it was,” Kopas said. “I think it is a shame that all this outside money spent amounts to an obscene use of influence on our local election. Clearly it works, and clearly most of that money was used against me.”

Anderson said he understands Kopas’ point of view, but added that he welcomed the state committee assistance.

“If I was sitting where they’re sitting, I’d say the same thing myself,” Anderson said.

Jim Burn Jr., chairman of the state Democratic Committee, said pre-election polling as well as the local candidates’ ability to raise money played a role in the decision to withhold a larger contribution.

“We knew we had difficult issues on the ground in Westmoreland,” Burn said.

Instead of cash contributions, the state committee supplied planning and strategic help, according to Burn.

But the Nov. 8 election results indicate the Democrats will struggle in the future, though the party holds a hefty edge in voter registration in Westmoreland, 53 percent to the Republican’s 37 percent.

The party last month lost control not only of the board of commissioners but all five county row offices up for grabs.

“We’re not going to give up on Westmoreland County. We realize that despite a voter registration advantage there is a disconnect between Democratic office holders, candidates and voters,” Burn said.

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