Why poor ratings might help local Republicans

WASHINGTON – For local Republicans, these failing grades might be a good thing.

The Club for Growth, a conservative advocacy group that pushes for low-tax, anti-regulations and pro-business policies – and opposes any hint of compromise -- released its 2013 ratings Monday, and Republican Congressmen from the Philadelphia area got some of the worst marks of anyone in the GOP.

For 2013, four local Republicans were rated among the House GOP’s bottom 10. (Bucks’ Mike Fitzpatrick, Chester’s Jim Gerlach, South Jersey’s Jon Runyan and the Lehigh Valley’s Charlie Dent all scored 43 or 42 percent in the Club’s rating system.

The other three local House Rs – South Jersey’s Chris Smith and Frank LoBiondo and Delaware County’s Pat Meehan -- also finished near the bottom of their conference.

The lifetime ratings were similar: Smith, Fitzpatrick and LoBiondo have the three lowest lifetime scores of any House Republicans graded last year. Gerlach was fifth lowest, Runyan seventh, and Dent and Meehan were both in the bottom 15.

So why’s that a good thing?

At least politically, it’s about the moderate districts these Republicans all represent. The Club has many fans among those who want to see conservative fiscal policies and who hate any level of taxation or government interference in business. Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey was once the group’s president and scored 93 percent last year – even though he has stepped to the middle on several social issues, he remains strongly conservative on fiscal issues his 94 percent lifetime rating qualified him for the Club’s “Defender of Economic Freedom” award.

But the Club is also known in Washington as one of the forces pulling Republicans to the right and attempting to derail any compromise on budgets and spending, even as many voters express disgust with Congressional gridlock. (No Democrat in the region area could do better in the Club's eyes than the 18 percent scored by Philadelphia Rep. Chaka Fattah).

In many House districts, tilted heavily to the right or left, unyielding opposition works. But not in the Philadelphia suburbs, where the electorates are moderate and voters are almost evenly split between Republican and Democrat. In these specific pockets, compromise is a good word.

It’s not that the local Republicans disagree with the Club’s goals – given their way it’s a safe bet that each would vote for tax cuts and softer regulations. But they also have a more pragmatic side than many colleagues. Standing on principle while the government grinds to a close might impress some voters, but overall that won’t work for the majority of their voters.

So the local delegation (with an exception here and there) has been part of the small band of Republicans who have crossed party lines to help pass bills that averted the fiscal cliff, OK’d a superstorm Sandy aid package, ended the fall government shutdown and, earlier this month, raised the federal debt ceiling.

Those votes put them on the wrong side with the Club for Growth, but probably on the right side with most of their constituents.

Someone recently asked me about the main issues in the local House races, and I struggled for a moment because in the Philadelphia-area swing districts, the candidates are more likely to campaign on tone than on drastic policy distinctions.

Yes, Republicans are going to run hard against Obamacare and Democrats will paint the GOP as anti-women and pro-elite, uncaring about working folks. But for the most part both sides will plant their flags on a relatively small patch of ground in the middle, separated by only a few yards of political turf. Each will take bold stands in favor of jobs and the middle class. (One big exception: Steve Lonegan, the conservative firebrand running for Runyan's South Jersey seat, who will attack Democrats and Republicans alike from the right).

For the most part, though, the main thrust of House races in our area will come down to approach. Republicans will cast Democrats as Nancy Pelosi-driven drones, out for a far-left agenda. Democrats will depict the GOP candidates as uncompromising tea party acolytes.

A strong Club for Growth score would play right into the Democratic narrative. Instead, local House Republicans emerged with poor Club grades, but a good counterpoint.

You can follow Tamari on Twitter or email him at jtamari@phillynews.com.