Political Hay

Can Tom Corbett Win?

Penn.'s GOP governor trails in race long from done.

By 6.3.14

UPI
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The number is stunning: Rasmussen released a poll over the weekend that showed Pennsylvania’s Republican Governor Tom Corbett — running for re-election in what everyone out there expects to be a GOP year — trailing newly nominated Democrat Tom Wolf by 20 points, 51-31.

Hello? What’s going on in William Penn’s namesake Commonwealth? Since Pennsylvania governors were first allowed to run for a second consecutive term in 1974 — when Democrat incumbent Milton Shapp beat future Reagan Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis — every Pennsylvania governor, no matter their party, has won a second term. Only once has it been close. GOP Governor Dick Thornburgh had a scare in his 1982 re-election bid, but in a Democrat year where Reaganomics had not yet kicked in to rescue the Carter economy, Thornburgh did eventually pull out a squeaker in a year that also saw then-GOP Senator John Heinz win his first re-election in a romp.

Before Shapp, governors were limited to one term — and if they wanted a second they had to come back later. But even then, Pennsylvania voters were long in the habit of electing the same party — if different candidates — to back-to-back four-year terms in the governor’s mansion. So long before governors were getting re-elected for a second term, their party was given a second term, always rotating out after eight years.

Thus the Corbett numbers are seemingly shocking. But they certainly shouldn’t be taken as the last word. It’s only June, after all. And it’s entirely possible a national GOP surge will help Corbett over the threshold. But that ignores the question: How in the world did Tom Corbett get himself in this situation in the first place? His newly nominated opponent, Tom Wolf, is a former Secretary of Revenue in ex-Governor Ed Rendell’s cabinet. A Jon Corzine-look alike, suffice to say there are no Pennsylvanians getting a thrill up their leg about Mr. Wolf (to borrow from another Pennsylvanian — Hardball’s Chris Matthews — about his reaction to Barack Obama.) Wolf is hardly a household name.

In fact, Corbett, who was elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, has done well by the state. He has steadfastly refused to raise taxes, the eternal Johnny-one-note answer of all Democrats everywhere. Once raised, of course, the money goes directly from voters’ pockets to liberal pals in special interest groups and they come back for more.

No example of this could be clearer than the Democrats’ demand to tax the flourishing natural gas boom that is remaking the northern tier section of the state that borders New York. Fracking has been given the green light, money and jobs are pouring in — and the Democrats’ reply is to give the money to their teacher-lobby friends. 

Corbett has stood tall on property rights, which is no small part of the debate. As reported in the New York Times, shortly before Wolf won the Democrats’ nomination, all four liberal contenders for the primary nod were attacking Corbett not only on private property rights but also for cutting corporate tax rates — all of which has dropped the Pennsylvania unemployment rate by almost 2 points from what it was when Corbett arrived in office. Writes the Times

All four Democratic contenders agree on how to increase education spending: by taxing the booming natural gas industry. They argue that Pennsylvania is giving away the store to drillers in the Marcellus shale formation by not collecting more.

Allyson Y. Schwartz, a Democratic congresswoman from the Philadelphia suburbs running for governor, called on the state to “demand they give us 5 percent and use the money to invest in education.”

The governor opposes adding new taxes to fees that drillers already pay, mostly to the counties where they operate. The argument the other side makes, he said, is that the gas is the property of all Pennsylvanians. 

“No, it’s not,” he said. “It’s the property owner’s gas. I’m sorry: It’s the mineral owner’s gas.”

His invoking of property rights was a reminder that the governor hews strongly to conservative principles, even in a state that has a moderate tradition. Elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, Mr. Corbett has refused to expand Medicaid under the president’s health care law, and he has presided over corporate tax cuts of $1.2 billion.

“You can go all the way back to Reagan: Reduce your taxes, you’re going to see growth,” he said.

Obviously, if gas drilled on private property belongs to “Pennsylvania” — than so does everybody’s house, business or anything else that is built on “Pennsylvania” land. This is an issue with consequences that Corbett has not hesitated to address with a “principles first” approach. And, as that unemployment drop indicates, the jobs associated with fracking have proved a boon to the state’s economy.

Gay marriage, here in Pennsylvania as elsewhere, has been an issue, with Corbett opposing. But recently a federal judge in Harrisburg unilaterally declared it to be legal — and Corbett, ever the cautious lawyer — refused to appeal the decision, saying it would be “extremely unlikely to succeed.” Perhaps instantly removing what could have been a highly contentious issue from the election year debate. Liberal opponents, who made a habit of baiting then-Senator Rick Santorum on the gay rights issue, find themselves winning the issue but losing a chance to attack Corbett.

So? What’s the problem here?

Liberals are inevitably going to try and make this about liberal issues — more money, more money, more money!!!!!! Education being a primary target, although there too Corbett has an advantage. A former teacher himself, as is his wife, Corbett makes the point that is frequently made by governors. Federal dollars being pumped into Pennsylvania — to the tune of almost a billion dollars for education in Pennsylvania’s case — had finally run out. What to do? Corbett’s answer was to grow the economy, then increase state funding for various state education programs like early childhood development.

But in fact Corbett’s real problem may come down to something much more elusive than issue A, B, or C. The power — or lack thereof — of Corbett’s personality. Suffice to say — and it has nothing to do with the difference in weight — Tom Corbett is no Chris Christie, neighboring New Jersey’s governor who, goes the word, is immensely popular in Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia suburbs with his bold, in-your-face, take-charge style. In person, and I’ve met him, Corbett has piercing blue eyes and a shock of white hair, making him eminently noticeable. But his own wife has said he’s the kind of guy that will spend his time at a cocktail party sitting by himself in the corner petting the household dog. Hardly Christie-esque. Like Christie, Corbett is a lawyer, reaching the governorship after serving, like Christie, as a U.S. Attorney, then going on to serve as the state’s attorney general. But their public personas could not be more different.

It is his legal background, ironically, that has brought him into conflict with the state’s current AG — Democrat Kathleen Kane. Perhaps the most infamous case in Pennsylvania history — the Jerry Sandusky/Penn State child molestation scandal — sprouted its first investigation while Corbett was the state’s top prosecutor. While it didn’t conclude until Corbett was well into his governorship — with Sandusky being convicted on 45 of 48 counts surrounding his molestation of young boys as Penn State’s assistant coach — Kane is insisting there were flaws in Corbett’s handling of the case and a report is scheduled to be released sometime before the election. Yet any “controversy” over Corbett’s tenure as AG would surely be met with an answering controversy surrounding Kane herself. The current AG was revealed by the Philadelphia Inquirer to have stopped investigations into Pennsylvania legislators accused of taking bribes — and worse, pulling the plug because the legislators, all from Philadelphia, were black. Reported philly.com:

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office ran an undercover sting operation over three years that captured leading Philadelphia Democrats, including four members of the city's state House delegation, on tape accepting money, The Inquirer has learned.

Yet no one was charged with a crime.

Prosecutors began the sting in 2010 when Republican Tom Corbett was attorney general. After Democrat Kathleen G. Kane took office in 2013, she shut it down.

On top of this, long before the federal judge’s decision on gay marriage, Kane simply refused to enforce Pennsylvania law that prohibited gay marriage before any federal ruling had been made — merely because she didn’t like the law. The two episodes have combined to make Kane the subject of an impeachment resolution in the GOP-controlled House. Whatever the consequences of that, it has given Kane a major black eye that would seem to neutralize any report on Corbett’s conduct of the office.

Not to be forgotten in all of this, Corbett’s low-key, charisma-challenged approach to the job belies an all-too obvious fact. Corbett, as the sitting governor, has a considerable ability to raise money. As state political observer Ed Uravic wrote last fall on Penn Live:

The state Republicans Party and Corbett’s own campaign are building a huge war chest. No one expects the winner of a hotly contest Democratic primary to come out of it with serious money left over, making it difficult for the eventual Democratic candidate to catch up financially in the general election. 

The more the Democrats fight each other, the more money flows into Republican coffers as Republican partisans watch gleefully from their electoral skybox. Money matters to regular folks, too. Fracking puts dollars in the pockets of real people in rural Republican areas of the state, and helps lower natural gas costs for homeowners and businesses everywhere. And it makes Republican-friendly energy companies richer and more wiling to contribute to Republican candidates.

Also not to be forgotten is geography. Born in Philadelphia, Corbett’s career has been based in Western Pennsylvania. Wolf is from Central Pennsylvania. In the calculus of Pennsylvania politics, getting elected to either the governor’s chair or a U.S. Senate seat is extremely difficult for Central Pennsylvanians for one simple reason: the serious population of the state is at either end of the state, East or West. In fact, the last governor of the state to be from Central Pennsylvania was from York County — exactly where Wolf is from. But then-State Senator George Leader, a chicken farmer, was elected in the heavily Democratic year of 1954, and there hasn’t been a mid-state governor — or senator — since. In short, Wolf has very little in the way of a base. Western Pennsylvania, on the other hand, has in recent years elected Pittsburgh’s John Heinz and Rick Santorum to the Senate and Erie’s Tom Ridge to the governorship.

All of which is to say? The Rasmussen poll aside, money, geography and issues make this race a long way from being settled. Tom Corbett may not be Mr. Charisma… but he could well be the tortoise running against the hare. 

We’ll see.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.