While his famous conservative elders squabble on the front page of the New York Times, Chris Lilik just keeps his eye on the ball.
Attention should be paid.
A Pennsylvanian, Lilik is no ordinary young conservative with a Reagan poster on the wall. A 27-year old Scranton native, while attending Villanova University in suburban Philadelphia for his undergraduate degree Lilik not only founded his own conservative newspaper, he persuaded no less than conservative actor Charlton Heston to appear, infuriating the school’s leftists. He spent nine months volunteering for conservative Congressman Pat Toomey in his dramatic, percentage point loss in a 2004 GOP primary challenge to moderate U.S. Senator Arlen Specter. A one-time intern for Oklahoma Congressman J.C.Watts, Lilik went on to pick up his law degree at Duquesne University’s law school in Pittsburgh.
Perhaps significantly in understanding the evolving state of generational politics with young conservatives, while Lilik loved Ronald Reagan he was only a year old when Reagan entered the White House. His conservative heroes, both at the national and state level, are very much alive and talking as a part of contemporary America.
“My mother got me hooked on Rush Limbaugh,” he laughs. Rattling off his list of conservative role models it is noteworthy that he names only one — Toomey — who has been an elected official. The others — Limbaugh and Sean Hannity — are both radio talk show hosts.
But it was his role in state politics that brought Lilik his first state-wide recognition as an up-and-coming conservative player.
In July of 2005, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania legislature, in a bipartisan move, passed an after-midnight pay raise grab. The pay grab incensed Lilik, the head of the Young Conservatives of Pennsylvania. Raising your own pay on the taxpayer’s dime didn’t sound like conservative principle to him.
Plunging into action he didn’t just become one of the state’s most vocal opponents of the pay raise. He set his sights on two seemingly impossible objectives: getting the raise repealed, then defeating two of the most prominent legislative leaders of the pay raise — both Republicans.
Setting up a website specifically devoted to repealing the pay raise, Lilik raised $10,000 — in the very first week. Money poured in from infuriated taxpayers that Lilik promptly spent on billboards and radio ads lacerating legislators for greed and urging repeal. Between the various arms of his groups, eventually he pulled in almost $100,000 to fuel his fight. Joining a bi-partisan coalition of angry Pennsylvanians across the political spectrum, the pay raise repeal was accomplished by November of 2005 — a mere five months later.
Then came the hard part.
Lilik took direct aim at the long-serving State Senate President and the equally long-serving Senate Majority Leader. The two, Senator Robert C. Jubelirer of Altoona and David “Chip” Brightbill of Lebanon, were extremely powerful Republican moderates viewed as politically untouchable in their respective Republican districts. Raising tens of thousands of dollars, he directed $60,000 alone straight to radio buys in each man’s district. To the utter astonishment of the state’s political establishment Lilik helped send the two pillars of the state GOP — each of whom had raised millions in campaign funds from Harrisburg lobbyists — crashing down to defeat at the hands of a pair of upstart conservative challengers. Overnight Lilik gained the unlikely reputation as a conservative David who slew not one but two Goliaths.
So in this season of carping conservatives it is worth noting that Lilik is picking up his political sling-shot once more.
Learning the tangled rules of the federal election system, Lilik went out and formed that odd federal beast the “527.” Meaning: Lilik was now empowered to involve himself in the issues education side of the increasingly close race for the U.S. Senate between conservative Republican incumbent Rick Santorum and his liberal Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Robert Casey, Jr. Lilik’s purpose? To get conservative issues on the front-burner — and educate voters.
Unlike many Republicans who will automatically vote the GOP ticket regardless of who is on the ballot, Lilik is genuinely disappointed that Casey, who is pro-life, has wasted a “tremendous opportunity” to pull the increasingly far-left party more towards the center. Reading of Casey’s support for death taxes and raising taxes in general, Lilik, like Casey a Scranton native, says simply: “I’m disappointed.”
As you read this, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is suddenly being flooded with Lilik radio ads relentlessly educating voters on Casey’s decidedly non-conservative positions on everything from illegal immigration to welfare reform, raising taxes, and Social Security.
This is not good news for Casey. In the words of one long-time correspondent for the liberal Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the State Treasurer has so far been going through his Senate campaign “like smoke,” avoiding issues and even, until recently, debates with the experienced Santorum.
While Santorum has cut Casey’s lead in more than half, the last several polls having him down anywhere from two to nine points, there has been increasing speculation among Pennsylvania political observers that Casey could actually get elected without mounting a serious issues campaign at all, in spite of being what Toomey calls a “big liberal.”
This was too much for Lilik, who believes candidates have an obligation to get out front with their positions. Just off the stunning success of his anti-pay raise efforts, the young man who calls himself a Reagan-style “Club for Growth” conservative finally decided to take the plunge into the vortex of the nation’s hottest race for the U.S. Senate. Carefully researching the arcane do’s and don’ts of federal 527’s, Lilik set up another version of his most potent weapon in the state legislative fight — a website.
Working the phones, burning up the e-mail traffic with his widening number of conservative fellow-believers across the state, Lilik quickly raised thousands of dollars. The two ads, one of which he wrote himself, were quickly taped, and time blocked out in Pennsylvania’s top media markets. They are set to roll in drive-time the morning of October 23rd — today.
One ad, modeled after the TV game show Jeopardy, runs through a series of “answers” about Casey’s positions on issues as an eager woman contestant repeatedly answers in increasingly disbelieving tones “Who is Bob Casey?” The second, “Invisible Pay Raise” scores Casey for his missing work as State Treasurer and signing the legislative paychecks in the pay raise fiasco.
But there is more to Lilik’s latest move than just a mere U.S. Senate race. He has another mission in mind as well. Inspired over the years by Toomey, Limbaugh, and Hannity, he felt it was time to act himself. Says he of gloomy conservative talk that Santorum will lose, “I want people to get inspired, to keep up the fight,” he says.
He laughs again. He’s conducting this interview while laying flat on his back, momentarily way-laid by a bout of food poisoning. “But I’ll be better tomorrow,” he laughs. “I have to be. I’ve been invited to the Press Club lunch.”
In the state capital of Harrisburg, where he now lives, it is a sure sign that Lilik has earned the attention and respect of Pennsylvania’s power brokers who doubtless are wondering what Lilik will do next.
The answer is as close as their radio dial.