The prospect of a three-way U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania appeared all but over yesterday as the state Supreme Court rebuffed Green Party Senate candidate Carl Romanelli's bid to get on the November ballot.
The ruling, in a one-sentence order, was good news for the Bob Casey campaign, which had feared that Mr. Romanelli's presence on the ballot would siphon votes from the Democrat. For the same reason, it was a blow to Sen. Rick Santorum and to the Republican donors who had funded the petition drive that sought to establish the Green hopeful's access to the November ballot.
State election law dictates that independent candidates for statewide office submit nominating petitions with a total number of signatures from registered voters equivalent to 2 percent of the votes cast for the top vote-getter in the most recent statewide election. The justices upheld a Commonwealth Court ruling that set a 67,000-vote threshold based on 2 percent of the votes cast for Mr. Casey in his 2004 race for state treasurer.
Mr. Romanelli's attorney, Lawrence Otter, argued that state elections officials should have used a 2005 judicial retention election for Justice Sandra Newman, a move that would have resulted in a signature requirement of approximately 15,000. The Green candidate had originally submitted nominating petitions, which he said, contained early 100,000 signatures.
After a review by state elections officials and litigation before Commonwealth Court, thousands of those signatures were ruled invalid, leaving him at least 9,000 short of the required total. Requirements for valid signatures are exacting under state law. Signatures collected must be from registered voters, and precisely match the data, such as address, recorded on state voter rolls.
"We're disappointed, but we still have another appeal with significant issues," said Mr. Otter. In a separate appeal of the original Commonwealth Court ruling, Mr. Romanelli is challenging the validity of the overall statewide registration system and argues that his due process rights were denied as he tried to rehabilitate thousands of signatures ruled invalid in the painstaking review before the court.
Cliff Levine, attorney for the Democratic Party, welcomed yesterday's order and maintained that it was "inconceivable" that the Green candidate would prevail the remaining issues.
Mr. Santorum had sharply criticized the Commonwealth Court order throwing Mr. Romanelli off the ballot, describing it as the work of "partisan judges."
Denouncing that characterization, Mr. Levine said, "I think it's important to note that he blamed it on partisan judges without knowing the facts or the law.
"Now we have a decision by the Supreme Court which has a majority of Republican justices applying the law, not partisan politics. It was a disservice to the appellate courts to suggest otherwise."
Virginia Davis, Mr. Santorum's press secretary, had no comment on Mr. Leaven's criticism, but she expressed disappointment at the court's action.
"It is a shame how difficult it is for someone who's demonstrated a sincere interest in being part of the democratic process to actually be on the ballot," she said. "Bob Casey and his cohorts should be ashamed at the efforts they went to knock someone off the ballot who's actually willing to say what he believes."
Mr. Romanelli's potential presence in the race has not proved to be decisive in any public polling on the race so far. In the few surveys that posed the three-way test, Mr. Casey had still posted leads in the neighborhood of low double digits. Mr. Santorum, however, enjoys a significant financial advantage over his challenger as the race approaches its final month.
If he were to close the gap with Mr. Casey, Mr. Romanelli -- the only one in the race supporting abortion rights and favoring an immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq -- could have proved a crucial competitor for Democratic votes.
The Casey campaign exulted over the twin rebuffs to Mr. Romanelli and his GOP financial backers.
"It's 14:59 and Romanelli's 15 minutes of fame are up," said Larry Smar, the Democrat's press secretary. "The question is whether Rick Santorum will ask Romanelli for his money back."
Politics editor James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.