Veteran Pennsylvania Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, said this week he will not seek re-election for family reasons, but it appears some conservative Republicans were ready to usher him out the door.
Conservative groups said they were mounting a primary challenge against Vereb because he was willing to consider a state budget that could lead to a tax increase.
In the past few election cycles, conservative interest groups in Pennsylvania have backed primary challengers against Republicans they regard as soft on key issues, including tax hikes and school choice. In two cases, those primary challengers have unseated Republican incumbents and won in the general election.
In another case, a conservative candidate ran for an open seat without party backing and drew enough votes away from Republican party candidates to let a Democrat in.
Conservative political consultant Ryan Shafik said he was vetting two potential primary candidates to run against Vereb when the state representative announced he’d be retiring.
“There was a primary challenge effort taking shape, and money was definitely being committed” to the tune of $25,000, Shafik said.
The donations came after Shafik wrote a letter in October, calling Vereb a “political gangster” and committing to work for free and raise money for any candidates willing to challenge Vereb in the 2016 primary. Shafik said he was pushed to action by what he characterized as Vereb’s attempts to sabotage Joe Gale, a conservative Republican candidate for Montgomery County commissioner who campaigned on an anti-abortion platform. Gale won a seat on the commission in November, running as an outside candidate against party-backed economist Steve Tolbert.
Leo Knepper, executive director of Citizens Alliance for Pennsylvania, a conservative group with deep pockets, said his group would have considered backing “the right candidate” to run against Vereb in the primary.
Citizens Alliance had already launched a negative mail campaign against Vereb last summer for being a Republican they saw as likely to vote against their interests, namely for a tax increase.
“For folks who were unwilling to hold the line on spending, we were highlighting that they had voted for tax increases in the past,” said Knepper.
According to Vereb, these special interest groups are less of a threat and more of a nuisance to established Republican candidates.
“No, I was not expecting a primary challenger,” he said, adding that he felt confident he would have won if he had decided to seek re-election. “My polling among Republicans is very strong.”
After over six months of budget wrangling within the Republican Party, several veteran moderate lawmakers have decided to hang up their hats.
State Sens. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, Bill Adolph, R-Delaware, and state representative Vereb are three local examples of moderate Republicans bowing out in 2016.
Speaking generally to the issue of divisions within the state Republican Party, Vereb said, moderates “are getting raked over the coals by people who flat out don’t know how it works up there to get things done.”
Fatigue, he said, did contribute to his decision not to run. “The bickering back and forth in Harrisburg over this budget clearly didn’t help matters when I was making my decision,” said Vereb.