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Asher a hidden force behind GOP success in Pa.

On Tuesday night, Gov.-elect Tom Corbett began his victory speech by thanking some of the supporters who had crowded with him onto a hotel stage in Pittsburgh.

Robert B. Asher, a GOP national committeeman, played a significant role in GOP leaders' decision to rally around Tom Corbett as the best choice for governor. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
Robert B. Asher, a GOP national committeeman, played a significant role in GOP leaders' decision to rally around Tom Corbett as the best choice for governor. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

On Tuesday night, Gov.-elect Tom Corbett began his victory speech by thanking some of the supporters who had crowded with him onto a hotel stage in Pittsburgh.

After family members, the first person he named was Bob Asher.

"Where's Bob?" Corbett asked, twisting his neck.

TV cameras caught a hand shooting up, way in the back. "Here!" came a muffled voice.

Robert B. Asher, typically, was in the middle of the action, but hidden from public view.

Corbett's thank-you list was in alphabetical order, but it would not have been wrong to rank the 73-year-old Asher at or near the top.

This candy-company owner from Montgomery County is recognized in political back rooms as the most influential Republican in Southeastern Pennsylvania and, over the decades, one of the most influential in the state.

Tuesday ranked among his best days, ever.

"I think that I was one of a number of people who had a fairly sizable role in helping Tom become governor," Asher said. That was the limit of his self-congratulation.

Yet any forensic examination of the GOP's widespread success in Pennsylvania in 2010 would find Asher's DNA all over it.

Although tea partyers and insurgents were rife nationally on Tuesday, Pennsylvania remained a state where the old guard - of both parties - reigned virtually unchallenged. And Asher is the very embodiment of the old guard.

By his own accounting, Asher raised $3 million for Republican causes. That included personal donations totaling $100,000 to the Corbett campaign, of which he was a cochairman.

He played a significant role in the early decision of GOP leaders to rally around Corbett as the best choice for governor.

He helped ease out another candidate, former U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan of Delaware County, then backed Meehan for the U.S. House seat in the Seventh District. Meehan was elected Tuesday.

When U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach of Chester County declined to join Meehan in stepping aside for Corbett, Asher helped cut off his fund-raising - then embraced Gerlach when he eventually opted to run for reelection in the Sixth District. Gerlach won, too.

The GOP not only won the governorship, it also claimed or held on to three swing congressional districts in the Philadelphia suburbs. Asher had a lesser role in Republican Mike Fitzpatrick's win in the Eighth District.

"When Bob Asher came out early for Tom Corbett, a lot of people who were on the fence jumped over for Corbett. It was a seminal moment in the campaign," said Philadelphia lawyer Charles G. Kopp, a member of the Corbett team whom the governor-to-be also thanked on election night.

Asher also was a key player in the decision by the party's Southeastern Pennsylvania caucus to settle on Bucks County Commissioner Jim Cawley as its choice for lieutenant governor - and then helped Cawley secure the state party's endorsement at its winter meeting in Harrisburg. As Corbett's running mate, he, too, was victorious Tuesday.

The Pennsylvania Future Fund, Asher's political action committee, helped in party-building activities across the state and in the GOP's successful effort to take control of the state House. That win, together with control of the governorship and state Senate, puts Republicans in position to redraw congressional and legislative district maps for the next decade.

Asher worked - with less success - to drum up votes for the Republican ticket in black and immigrant areas of Philadelphia, where he grew up.

"Bob has that rare combination of political astuteness and tremendous fund-raising capacity," said Leslie Gromis Baker, a senior Corbett adviser from Western Pennsylvania. "It would be hard to find anyone to top him in all of the areas."

Asher's influence starts in Montgomery County, where he backs candidates for local office (and has been in a long feud with GOP County Commissioner Bruce Castor). It extends to Harrisburg and Washington: He is one of just two permanent members of the Republican National Committee from Pennsylvania. The other is Christine Toretti of Indiana County, chief executive officer of a family-owned oil-and-gas drilling firm.

One man, one woman; one from the East, one from the West. That's how a tightly structured party organizes things.

But other party leaders say Asher can be a bit of a freelancer. In fund-raising, in organizing, in all sorts of behind-the-scenes moves, he says: I'll take care of the Southeast. You go worry about the rest of the state.

"We have our own organization. He supports that organization, but he does his own thing - I couldn't even tell you," state party chairman Rob Gleason said.

"The one thing I can say," added Gleason, who is from Johnstown, "is that he is a great force in our party."

If you're a Republican and you want to run for office, Asher is the first person you see.

Even Democrats say so.

"He's probably the best person to have on your side - statewide," said U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, chairman of Philadelphia Democrats.

Asher, like the old-school politician he is, maintains good relationships with his opposite numbers.

"I appreciate talent, and Bob is talented," said another old warhorse, Marcel Groen, the Montgomery County Democratic chairman. "He does what's best for his party. I wish I had more like him in our party."

Asher, who stands 5-foot-9 and is a trimmer version of his old self, was once GOP state chairman. But he was never a publicity seeker. He always has loved to inhale the aroma of the smoke-filled room.

His natural aversion to the limelight was magnified manyfold when he returned to politics after serving 10 months and 10 days in prison in 1989 on federal charges of mail fraud, perjury, and conspiracy to commit bribery.

Prosecutors said Asher had joined state Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer in a scheme to extract a $300,000 payoff from a company that gained a no-bid state contract for computer services. They said Asher's role had been to suggest the bribe go to the Republican State Committee instead of Dwyer.

On the eve of sentencing, Dwyer killed himself.

Over the years, opponents have blasted some of Asher's candidates for their tie to a convicted felon. Dan Onorato, Corbett's Democratic rival, never brought it up in the governor's race.

"It will always be there. It will never wash away," Asher said. "I still, to this day, maintain that I did not do anything improper. However, the court did not agree. So I paid my dues."

Asher's Chocolates, the 108-year-old company that his Scottish-immigrant grandfather founded and that Asher operates in Souderton with his brother, Jack, has made him a wealthy man.

Asher's sells 82 percent of its chocolates to other sellers, who then market them under their own name. The Asher's brand is sold in Sunoco stations on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but Asher said the company had no government contracts at any level - and didn't want any.

He said he played politics for love of America.

"I believe in America the way it was meant to be - a capitalistic society where everybody from any walk of life has an opportunity to become a success," he said.

"I also believe that we have responsibilities to people that are less fortunate than us. . . . But I would rather focus our attention on teaching people how to make it."

Asked what role he expected to have in the Corbett administration, he replied: "I will tell you what I said to Gov.-elect Corbett on election night:

" 'I will do whatever you want me to do to help you be successful. But the choice is totally up to you.' "

Whatever it is, it will probably be backstage.