Ahead of crucial midterms, the PA GOP is short on staff and funding

PA GOP Chairman Val DiGiorgio - from his Facebook page

PA GOP Chairman Val DiGiorgio - from his Facebook page

Last December, the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania had just $15,000 cash on hand – millions less than the party traditionally boasts at the end of the calendar year. By all accounts, that sum was barely enough to keep the lights on at the PA GOP’s State Street office building in Harrisburg – not that there is much to illuminate these days.

A campaign and fundraising nerve center for Republicans across the state, the office boasted about 15 full-time employees during last year’s judicial elections – a number that even at the time indicated understaffing. Today, recent visitors say, the building is mostly empty, even though the critical November midterm elections are just around the corner. 

“I think we usually had about 20 people; in presidential years, we probably had over 200, including field staff,” recalls former PA GOP chair Rob Gleason, who reigned over the state committee for 11 years. “One of the most effective things I was able to do was hire good staff. But you need a lot of money to do that.”

A Democratic rival put the current state of the PA GOP in stark terms.

“It is hard to maintain good staff without money,” said T.J. Rooney, a former chair of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “But to only have $15,000 at the end of the year … forget about bonuses – you’re struggling to make the payroll.”

Indeed, financial records and sources familiar with committee operations indicate that the PA GOP skipped its traditional staff Christmas bonuses this year. Shortly after the holidays, most of the personnel that accompanied chairman Val DiGiorgio to Harrisburg in 2017 left in a wave of departures.

Two weeks ago, a PA GOP spokesperson confirmed the identity of just four permanent staff members, all of whom were recently hired after the exodus of senior employees. Executive director Rob Brooks, political director Tim Lagerman, deputy political director Derrick Backer, and communications director Greg Manz each departed in the last six months. A few weeks ago, finance director Laura Wagoner also gave notice.

The state committee downplayed the significance of staff turnover and apparent financial strain, although newly minted communications staffer Jason Gottesman, who took over for Manz, refused to comment directly on the subject of this article. He instead referred all questions to a recent statement that chairman Val DiGiorgio sent to all Republican state committee members. 

That letter described the departure of Brooks – a close associate of DiGiorgio at the Chester County GOP who was brought on as an interim executive director – as part of a planned transition. The other staffers are all said to have “moved on to pursue great new opportunities.”

But several Republican operatives, all speaking on condition of anonymity, told a different story about the current state of PA GOP. Some speculated that deeper problems – either the party’s financial issues or some unspoken misconduct – had driven staff away en masse. Others said staff attrition and financial resources were linked to larger divisions within the party and internal unhappiness with DiGiorgio, who took over last year after an extremely tight and acrimonious contest with former party lawyer Lawrence Tabas.

Rooney said that regardless of the causes, few political operations plan for – let alone celebrate – the departure of key personnel just before crucial elections.

“People are supposed to leave in off-years. Now, we’re in the (election-year) cycle,” he said. “I’m all for people going on to greener pastures, but what’s out of place is that this didn’t happen last year.”

Dan Hayward, a former PA GOP executive director who now works as a managing partner at Novak Strategies, offered a different perspective.

“In 2003, we changed over staff significantly going into a presidential race and a hotly contested primary race. It’s maybe roughly analogous to what's going on now,” he said. “It’s a stressful job. It doesn't surprise me at all.”

But Hayward also described a far more robust operation 15 years ago.

“When I started as executive director in ’03, I probably had about eight or nine staffers in the building. At the end of the next year, I had a staff with a (field) component and state party personnel with close to 100 employees for the 2004 presidential race,” he said.

The finances of the state committee itself have withered compared to past years. In 2017, the PA GOP brought in $2.4 million in contributions, its lowest gross since 2005, when the party was nearly $1 million in debt. It also spent nearly its entire haul – and then some – as it burned through most of the $300,000 brought forward from the previous year. 

It ended 2017 with just $75,000 cash on hand – minus $61,000 in unfulfilled vendor obligations. That sum includes a $28,000 invoice owed to Brooks’ own consulting firm.

For comparison, the party has historically brought in anywhere from $3.6 million to upwards of $10 million in recent years, including presidential runs, and has typically kept several hundred thousand dollars in reserve.

“I left the state committee in decent financial shape,” Gleason said, of his tenure. “It’s a tough job to be the state chairman. It takes a lot of money to run the state committee.”

It’s worth noting that the state committee regularly receives millions from the Republican National Committee and other national donors for congressional races. That money is earmarked via a separate federal committee, which recently reported about $118,000 in the bank. 

While the state party controls these funds, that money is restricted by donor commitments and campaign finance laws.

“Only federal campaigns can use the federal money,” Gleason said. “You wouldn't believe the paperwork. It’s a no-bullshit thing – it’s very stringent.”

The state funds are particularly key for Republicans because, unlike Democrats, GOP players across the state rely heavily on the state committee as a fundraising and support mechanism.

“With us, there are a million different repositories for us to fund the party and the campaign effort. We’re a big-tent party and we have a big financial tent,” Rooney, the former state Democratic Party leader, explained. “The Republicans’ money is typically run through the party itself from a smaller number of large donors….Their donor base is far more accustomed to writing checks to the Republican Party of Pennsylvania than ours is” accustomed to writing similar checks to the state Democratic Party.

The state committee provides a key support apparatus for campaigns across the commonwealth – Gleason said the PA GOP deploys a crucial ground game ahead of elections, paying for extra field staff, campaign supplies – even picking up the tab for costly election data and software.

“We are really charged with the conduct of statewide elections – everything from president down to judges,” he said. “I felt my job was to support the county committees, seek out good candidates and then support them as they conducted their general election campaigns.”

As repercussions from the PA GOP’s diminished stature began impacting campaigns across the state, some privately grumbled about DiGiorgio’s stewardship. A Southeastern PA Republican who threw his support behind Marco Rubio during the 2016 GOP primary campaign, the Chester County native was blasted from the outset by the party’s growing pro-Trump wing out west. Gleason, DiGiorgio’s predecessor, notably spun off his own pro-Trump PAC upon his departure – although Gleason denies seeking to take former donors with him. 

More recently, DiGiorgio has waded into a bitter feud between state Sen. Scott Wagner and opponent Paul Mango, making several statements in support of Wagner, who was endorsed in a committee vote this past February. That decision invited more internal criticism, although some see a link between DiGiorgio’s actions and the committee’s shaky finances – Wagner is also a major donor, having injected some $335,000 of his own cash into Republican county committees and campaigns since January 2017.

Other factors weighing on party fundraising would be outside of any chairman’s control. Some point to the 2015 passing of John Templeton, a prolific GOP donor. Others say the rise of independent voters means fewer people are willing to donate directly to political parties. 

Hayward also noted that DiGiorgio does not have a Republican governor to help boost statewide fundraising, as in some past years.

“(Former PA GOP chair) Alan Novak had Tom Ridge, who was an amazing party figure and fundraiser,” he said. “Having a powerful governor to help focus on organizational operations is huge. You look at Val with Tom Wolf … you have a different context.”

But Hayward added that he also believes there is still time to right the ship, particularly once the acrimonious primary battles subside. All past is merely prologue, he says, even with the General Election – and a much-discussed “Blue Wave” – just seven months away. 

“In a contested primary, you always have a lot of black eyes...It’s how the party comes back together afterward that’s more important,” he said. “The real political work and party apparatus work is coming back together because we gotta win in November. And it ain’t going to be easy.”

DiGiorgio declined to be interviewed for this article.