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UPDATED: Tea Vs. Establishment Battle comes to Dauphin County

Aside from the epic power struggle over Lebanon County’s Republican Committee, and a smaller but equally strenuous 2010 battle in York County between 912 Patriots and entrenched Republicans, which ended in the summer of 2011 in favor of the Tea Party insurgents, Central Pennsylvania, and Dauphin County specifically, has not seen such a contest.

Until now.

Now, that open competition has fully arrived, and it may become open warfare. Oh sure, there have been some past skirmishes. The first skirmish involved former Dauphin County commissioner Lowman Henry being dumped in 2002 by the party in favor of a candidate the inner circle liked more; that planted a seed of factionalism.

Two years ago those rumblings erupted forcefully during the PA-17th Congressional District Republican Primary race, when traditionalists advocated party endorsements and the outsiders wanted an open primary, in the American spirit of “May the best person win.” That is, may the highest merit be rewarded with the highest accolades and well-earned support. No more skulduggery to edge out unwanted candidates and strong leaders by insiders whose interest is perceived by some to be retaining power and control.

In 2010, the outsiders prevailed in one way, with only one GOP Dauphin County group doing an endorsement (the Susquehanna Township GOP Committee). The other challenge came from a committee member, Alan, who unsuccessfully challenged party chairman John McNally for that chairmanship. Challenges are uncommon, and it was a second seed planted next to the Lowman Henry tree, or maybe it was fruit from that tree.

Soon after in 2010, those outsiders became identified with and then known as “Tea Party” activists. Their view was that they were merely seeking to return America’s conservative movement and Republican party to essential American traditions and principles. The way they were viewed by the established, inner-circle GOPers was with disquiet.

When the open insurrections began, no one thought they were more than disagreements between liberal and conservative Republicans.

Now, an open power struggle has erupted for the heart and soul of the Dauphin County Republican Party.

On the one hand are more conservative Republicans, feeling shunted aside and unappreciated, despite their significant sacrifices and hard work for the party. Some others had declared their interest in or intentions to run for certain seats, only to then find themselves carefully dissected from those seats in the new redistricting. Their own party did that dissecting.

Dauphin County GOP Chairman John McNally has declared his candidacy for the newly created and open state senate seat carved out of retiring senator Jeff Piccola’s district. York County businessman Steve Johnson has indicated his interest in the same senate seat. Johnson ran for lieutenant governor in 2010 among a slate of eight candidates.

UPDATE: Bill Seeds, a long time supervisor of Lower Paxton Township, is declaring his intention to run for the same senate seat, as is the York County Clerk of Courts. Each group is using the tried and useful divide-and-conquer method, as they cultivate new candidates from the opposing candidate’s county.

McNally has temporarily handed his chairmanship to Dauphin County commissioner Jeff Haste, with the expectation that McNally will re-occupy it if he loses to Johnson. However, long-time GOP activist and congressional candidate Toni Gilhooley has stated that she will seek the Dauphin County GOP chairmanship.

State representative Sue Helm is now challenged by a 26-year-old attorney, Jenna Lewis, who is endorsed by the GOP establishment, including much-liked Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico and her own father, Judge Lewis.

Susquehanna Township is a changing political landscape, where Helm, a well-known businesswoman, barely held onto her seat two years ago against Democrat activist Gene Stilp, of The Pink Pig fame.

Conservatives unhappy with Helms’ past performance now find themselves having to choose between Helm or the very young, inexperienced, and untested Lewis. Given that Lewis has the establishment wagons circling around her, the outsiders are quietly rallying to Helm.

What intrigues me is how the Tea Party began in Lebanon and Berks counties, when then-senator Arlen Spector spoke a lot of hogwash to fed-up American Joes. The Tea Party spread to Virginia, New Jersey, New York, and Massachussettes, where Republicans swarmed rickety barricades manned by corpulent, unprepared Democrats.

Now what? With the Lebanon County Republican Party firmly in the hands of the pluralistic Tea Party, will Dauphin County go the same way? And if it does, will Perry County and Centre County follow suit?

Centre County is, after all, the home turf of state senator Jake Corman, known to many as the “Silver Spoon Senator” for having casually inherited his father’s former senate seat. Corman voted for the legislative pay raise and remains one of the very few elected officials upon whom rural Pennsylvania taxpayers have not yet sought revenge.

Like Perry County, Centre County is a deeply conservative region ripe for the same frustration and political dynamic that changed Lebanon County and has now landed squarely in Dauphin County.

Corman’s presence could be the spark that lights those other Tea Party fires.

Stay tuned.