The Candy Magnate Fueling Trump in Pennsylvania - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because his sweets could help tip the election.

By Nick Fouriezos

  • A co-chair of Donald Trump’s Pennsylvania fundraising effort, Bob Asher is a longtime Republican fixture who found redemption after serving time in prison for corruption.
  • His fundraising skills will be critical in this pivotal state for Trump’s reelection.

When he won his race to become governor of Pennsylvania in November 2010, Republican Tom Corbett began his election victory speech by craning his neck back and shouting out: “Where’s Bob?” And anyone who was anyone at this GOP event knew exactly which “Bob” he was referring to — the candy magnate Robert “Bob” Asher, a real life Willy Wonka, if only Willy Wonka were a 5-foot-9 millionaire bankroller of conservative candidates who once served nearly a year in federal prison for corruption.

A decade later, Asher has another title: finance co-chair for Donald Trump’s campaign in Pennsylvania — one of three swing states, along with Wisconsin and Michigan, where some 77,000 votes (of more than 136 million cast) won Trump the presidency in 2016. Through his 2016 campaign, Trump raised about $3.6 million from Pennsylvanians. But from his inauguration through June of this year, Trump’s campaign has taken in nearly $4.6 million from Pennsylvania — and the Republican National Committee has raised still more.

And in a race that could come down to the wire once more, what hasn’t changed is how much Republicans will depend on Asher, now in his eighties, to get them over the finish line. “He’s more than a bank account,” says Dennis Roddy, a GOP consultant and former Corbett aide. “This is somebody who doesn’t have to open his checkbook to be listened to.”

Asher grew up in the northwest Philadelphia suburbs, attending the historic Germantown Academy from kindergarten through high school. He graduated from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 1960, eight years before Trump did, just one of the many similarities between the two family business-inheriting conservatives. While serving as co-chairman of Asher’s Chocolate Co., the candy company his Scottish immigrant grandfather founded in nearby Souderton, Asher became a force in Montgomery County politics from the late ’60s to the early ’80s.

It will always be there. It will never wash away.

Bob Asher, in 2010, on his corruption conviction

“Asher was, perhaps, the most powerful Republican in the state for decades … he knew how to play the game, built relationships and alliances,” says G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College. It didn’t hurt that everyone loves a man who can salve a sweet tooth, as Roddy puts it: “It’s hard to really hate somebody who runs a candy company.”

Yet Asher has found many ways to put that theory to the test in his contradictory career. In 1987, at the height of his influence while serving as chairman of the state GOP, Asher got caught up in a corruption scandal in which Republican state Treasurer R. Budd Dwyer was convicted of accepting a $300,000 bribe. The case ended tragically when Dwyer killed himself in front of reporters at a state Capitol press conference the day before he was to be convicted.

Asher was accused of suggesting the bribe should go to the state party, not Dwyer, and spent 10 months and 10 days in prison for mail fraud, perjury and conspiracy to commit bribery. “It will always be there. It will never wash away,” Asher, who did not respond to our requests for comment, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2010. “I still, to this day, maintain that I did not do anything improper. However, the court did not agree. So I paid my dues.”

After serving his time, Asher wasn’t necessarily embraced by Republicans, but after engineering a 1991 upset of two incumbent Montgomery County commissioners by two of his own allies, his influence was undeniable. (The fact that Dwyer had killed himself probably played a role in Asher being accepted back as well. “You don’t get much more atonement than that,” Roddy notes.) Since 2000, Asher’s PA Future Fund has donated nearly $18 million to conservative candidates and causes. He has been considered a kingmaker, a prime mover behind Republican candidates from Corbett to 2018’s GOP gubernatorial nominee Scott Wagner, as well as dozens more down-ballot candidates.

However, there are signs that Asher’s golden touch may be fading. Amid a flagging economy — Pennsylvania was 47th in job creation under his watch — Corbett became in 2014 the first incumbent Pennsylvania governor to lose reelection since 1854. Wagner suffered a disappointing blowout loss to Democratic incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf.

Robert Asher

And after backing the losing state party chairman last year, Asher himself was challenged for his spot as Pennsylvania’s Republican National Committeeman … a post he had held since 1998, and relinquished last week to state party secretary Andy Reilly. Asher bowed out of the race in July once it was clear he would lose.

Still, Asher’s work remains pivotal for Trump. He’s raising money to feed the expensive television ad market in Philadelphia and its suburbs, which are essential to a Trump victory … and which have markedly turned against the president. “The Republicans have a serious problem if they keep getting blitzed in the ’burbs like they did in 2018,” Madonna says.

That’s true in Asher’s backyard, as Montgomery County — once a GOP stronghold with Republicans, who outnumbered registered Democrats for decades until the 2008 election — voted for Hillary Clinton over Trump by nearly a 22-point margin. And if those fortunes are to turn, Asher will play an important role. Much of it will involve a sales job from the chocolate merchant: Donors want to back a winner, but Trump has consistently trailed in the polls. Asher’s role “may not be as political as it was; it will be more financial,” says Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist based in the state capital Harrisburg. “He knows the players, knows how to talk to them and how to get into their wallets.”

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories