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Rep. Bryan Cutler beats conservative primary opponent in contentious state House race

  • By Jaxon White and Tom Lisi/LNP | LancasterOnline
State Rep. Bryan Cutler reacts at his victory party at the Quarryville Fire House in Quarryville on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. Cutler will run for re-election as the Republican candidate in the 100th District in November.

 Andy Blackburn / LNP | LancasterOnline

State Rep. Bryan Cutler reacts at his victory party at the Quarryville Fire House in Quarryville on Tuesday, April 23, 2024. Cutler will run for re-election as the Republican candidate in the 100th District in November.

State Rep. Bryan Cutler Tuesday night notched a decisive victory over a primary challenger who waged a well-organized grassroots campaign backed by several right-wing organizations frustrated with Republican Party leaders in the Legislature.

Cutler, who serves as the Republican leader in the Pennsylvania House, had won 5,020 of the 9,369 total votes counted as of 11:05 p.m. His primary opponent, Sadsbury Township business owner Dave Nissley, received 4,349. Uncertified totals are expected by Wednesday morning.

In his victory speech to his supporters gathered at the Quarryville Fire Department hall on E. State St., Cutler thanked his family and volunteers who knocked doors and made phone calls on his behalf.

“It really means a lot to see the community come together,” Cutler said. “This job has always been about service, we talked about it time and time again, and I think today’s results clearly spoke that the residents of this district want more of that service, and they want that service to continue.”

Cutler, campaign staff and volunteers had huddled over a laptop in the corner of the firehouse within 25 minutes of polls closing Tuesday night.

Early returns showed promising results in polling places that the campaign thought might see strong support for Nissley. Around 9 p.m., surrounded by firefighter helmets and jackets, Cutler was bear-hugging volunteers as the numbers appeared, showing he was winning much of the vote.

Just ten minutes later, Cutler all but declared victory, saying the campaign had received reports from polling places across the district and that only a few mail-in ballots were left to be counted, not enough to change the outcome.

With no Democrat running in the 100th Legislative District this year, Cutler is all but assured a 10th term in office in the November general election.

Cutler said he hadn’t thought about whether he’d run for the House speaker gavel if the GOP seizes control of the chamber from Democrats later this year.

As of press time, Cutler was leading in 13 of the 20 precincts in the district, to Nissley’s seven.

The two precincts in Strasburg Boro were nearly evenly split, with Cutler leading Nissley by 5 votes in Strasburg-1, and Nissley leading by 12 votes in Strasburg-3.

Cutler overwhelmed Nissley in much of the central and southern portions of the district, including Quarryville Borough and Drumore, East Drumore and Fulton Townships.

But Nissley had a strong showing in some of the district’s northeast townships. He handily won both precincts in Salisbury Township and swept the three between Strasburg Borough and Strasburg Township. He also bested Cutler in Sadsbury Township, Christiana Borough and Paradise Township.

Nissley didn’t permit a reporter to attend his campaign’s watch party and did not respond to requests for comment late Tuesday evening. A Cutler spokesperson said that as of 10:40 p.m., the two candidates had not spoken by phone.

Though the two candidates aligned on most issues — both are anti-abortion, pro-gun conservatives who support tax cuts to promote economic growth — Nissley’s strong showing Tuesday was driven by his criticisms of Cutler’s actions when he was House speaker from 2020-22. As a member of party leadership, Nissley argued, Cutler cut too many compromises and failed to serve his constituents back home.

Nissley also benefited from a multi-year campaign to undermine Cutler’s credibility among the voters in the 100th District, which includes much of Lancaster County’s Southern End and stretches north to include a portion of Salisbury Township.

The race was expected to be close up until the polls opened. About halfway through the voting hours on Tuesday, Cutler observed that the race “could be either way, to be honest.”

But as returns began to come in, Nissley had failed to uproot Cutler’s deep roots in a district where he has lived his entire life and represented in Harrisburg since 2007.

Pressure from the right

The seeds of Cutler’s tough primary race this year trace back to nearly four years ago, when activists more loyal to former President Donald Trump and the “MAGA” movement pressured Cutler in the immediate wake of the 2020 election to use his authority as House speaker to flip Pennsylvania’s electoral votes to Trump.

Three times in the weeks ahead of Jan. 6, dozens of pro-Trump protestors gathered outside Cutler’s home in Peach Bottom and his district office in Quarryville, demanding that he do more to help reverse the election results.

Cutler also received calls from Trump lawyers and was invited to the White House to meet with the president. He later told the House January 6 Committee that he had told the former president he did not have the power to stop Pennsylvania’s electoral votes from being awarded to Joe Biden.

Conservative discontent toward Cutler worsened when Trump blamed his loss in Pennsylvania on baseless claims of mass voter fraud, which the former president said was caused in part by the state’s newly enacted no-excuse mail-in ballot policy – established by Act 77 of 2019. Republican leaders, including Cutler, led the efforts to pass that law, which was widely thought to be a blow to Democrats because it did away with straight-ticket voting.

Cutler and other Republicans who voted for Act 77 have argued that the courts manipulated the intent of the law to include election provisions they didn’t support, like ballot drop boxes.

But discontent over the law fueled a 2022 primary challenge to Cutler by Quarryville resident Anne Weston. Several conservative groups, like FreePA, supported Weston’s campaign, and though she lost overwhelmingly, the groups continued their efforts to disrupt Cutler’s political career.

Cutler committed his latest perceived offense early last year when he tried to block Democrats from asserting full control over the Pennsylvania House. With just a one-seat difference between the pirates, Cutler worked to install Bucks County Democrat Mark Rozzi as an independent House speaker. If the plan had worked, it would have left Republicans in charge of the daily proceedings of the House.

But Rozzi never left the Democratic Party and he resigned from his speakership after Democrats were able to assert control over the House following two special elections.

Far-right activists refused to see Cutler’s action as a strategic ploy that, had it worked, could have secured a one-seat GOP majority. Within weeks of the speaker vote in Jan. 2023, those groups organized a protest outside a Cutler town hall meeting in Strasburg Township at which the protesters called Cutler a “traitor.”.

Couple the far-right’s loathing of Cutler with a growing general discontent toward politicians who have been in office for a long time, and the stage was set for another primary challenge this year.

Enter Nissley.

His candidacy, launched last August, quickly gained traction among far-right organizations from nearby counties whose members detest the party establishment in Harrisburg. These groups include the Pennsylvania Liberty Fund, the Berks County Patriots and the PA Patriots Coalition, and they funded mailers attacking Cutler for the Rozzi vote and for negotiating spending bills with Democratic governors.

Nissley also won support from Citizens Alliance Pennsylvania, which has found past success in kicking incumbent Republican lawmakers out of Harrisburg.

The group bought more than $140,000 worth of political mailers for Nissley, helping him outspend Cutler’s campaign during the year’s first three months.

The group targeted Cutler’s role in negotiating state budgets with Democratic governors to try and depict him as a moderate-leaning Republican. Nissley’s supporters also attacked Cutler’s efforts to maintain GOP control over the House early last year when he worked to install Bucks County Democrat Mark Rozzi as the House speaker.

Meanwhile, Cutler relied on a team of experienced Republicans in the southern end, many of whom he considers friends and family.

“I am pleased but not at all surprised that voters in the 100th District resoundingly rejected outside special interest voices seeking to malign Rep. Cutler’s record and confuse the electorate,” said state Sen. Ryan Aument, who led Cutler’s first campaign in 2006. “This was a decisive win and I couldn’t be prouder of Bryan and his entire team.”

Kirk Radanovic, chair of the county GOP, shared a similar sentiment. He said Cutler’s victory shows the county party is successful in reaching voters through its ground game.

“For people who were from outside the county who want to dump a ton of money here, it’s not good news for them,” he said.

Cutler response

Cutler’s campaign was slow to engage Nissley.

Other than posting to social media, one of his campaign’s first major public actions was to hire a Washington-based firm to conduct opposition research against his opponent. Having unanimously endorsed Cutler, the county GOP committee published the findings, crying foul at Nissley’s handling of a 2008 Oregon traffic violation.

Scott Frantz, chair of the Solanco Republicans, acknowledged that slow start: “Once we got the ball rolling, then all the friends and supporters just jumped in.”

Cutler’s campaign also sent a mailer to homes in the district with official records showing Nissley had not voted in multiple elections in the past decade.

On social media, his campaign posted fact checks to many of Nissley’s accusations, arguing Nissley’s attacks left out important context about Cutler’s actions in office.

Cutler’s daughter, Cheyanne Cutler, 21, helped run the campaign’s social media. The younger Cutler is also a committeewoman in Drumore Township and said she would likely eventually work in politics.

“I still have to get school out of the way and all that,” she said.

The older Cutler, perhaps most effectively, leaned on his longstanding relationships in the district, personally delivering yard signs to his supporters’ houses.

Shelley Castetter, a long-time county GOP committeewoman in Solanco who previously led Cutler’s campaign, said Nissley was formidable because of the all the money he received.

“It’s not all about the money, but when you have very aggressive PACs behind you, who are going out… really putting the beat down on your candidate it can be really intimidating,” Castetter said. “I think that people saw Brian for who he is. They appreciate the work he’s done and they want to keep him to continue it.”

Cutler then received $273,000 worth of last-minute financial support from multiple political action committees and Republican Party-tied groups in the two weeks leading up to the primary. How Cutler spent those dollars won’t be disclosed until at least May 23.

Nissley’s pitching of himself to voters as a political outsider resonated with some conservatives.

But his refrain from participating in standard county-level politics may have harmed his support among the area’s traditional Republicans.

Leading to his failure to secure the county GOP endorsement in January, Nissley has said he didn’t take the process seriously and didn’t meet with members of the committee beforehand.

He also didn’t attend the annual Solanco breakfast in February, an act that soured some committee members on his campaign.

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