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Right now, about the only person who can save Gov. Tom Corbett from defeat in 2014 is Allyson Schwartz.
The congresswoman from Montgomery County is early leader in the crowded field of Democrats seeking their party’s nomination for governor.
Trying to handicap that primary race now would be foolish, especially since the field is in flux. All I can say is that if we end up with five strong candidates next spring, the person who gets over 20 percent of the vote can win. As a woman, as a resident of the populous Philadelphia area and as an avatar of liberalism, Schwartz could easily get that 20+ percent.
What makes her vulnerable in a general election are exactly the traits that make her so formidable in a Democratic primary.
She is from Philadelphia — or, at least, perceived as such elsewhere. She is liberal. She is a woman seeking to run a state with an antediluvian political culture. She has a record, both in the state Senate and in Congress, consisting of a thousand or so votes, which can be plumbed for fodder for campaign ads, most of which will be centered on sticking the label of “Tax and Spend Democrat’ on her.
Negative advertising is like brass knuckles: crude but effective. Corbett will have millions to spend on his own ads. We’ll also be seeing an infusion of Super PAC money aimed at helping Corbett along, especially is the race is perceived as winnable for the hapless Republican candidate.
People view elections through the prism of ideology. As a technician — i.e. a political reporter — I tend to look at geography.
I also try to put myself in another’s shoes. So, for this exercise, I will pretend that I am Corbett’s campaign manager and ask myself: What would I want a map of Pennsylvania to look like in November, 2014?
Let’s begin in Philadelphia, which I immediately concede as a lost cause. The state’s most populous county is so deeply Democratic blue it is nearly purple.
Besides, many Philadelphians rightly see Corbett as the main cause of the miseries of the city’s schools. He got 17 percent of the vote in the city four years ago — actually not bad for a Republican. Next year, he won’t break into double digits, regardless of who is running against him.
The question about Philadelphia — not just for Corbett but all Republicans — is always: What will turnout be? Four years ago, in a nondescript race that had Allegheny County’s Dan Onorato as Democratic candidate, turnout in the city was 40 percent, the lowest in the state.
If Schwartz is the candidate, turnout will be higher. She also is a lock to win Montgomery County by a wide margin, as well as increasingly Democratic Delaware County. Her problem comes beyond those borders. If she can win the other five counties in the Philadelphia Media Market by convincing margins, then it will be Gov. Schwartz to you.
But, Corbett won those five counties four years ago and, again as his campaign manager, my goal will be to hold onto Berks, Bucks, Chester, Lehigh and Northampton — admittedly by smaller margins.
When he first ran for governor in 2002, Ed Rendell got close to seven out of 10 votes cast in Philadelphia media market. That Rendell victory — and the general tilt of the region to being more Democratic — changed the paradigm in statewide elections. The new rule of thumb is: if a Democrat wins big in the southeast, he or she wins Pennsylvania. Period. The anti-votes in the rest of the state cannot make up the difference. Ask Gov. Rendell. Ask President Obama.
Schwartz does not have the reach or popularity of those candidates. Four years ago, Onorato did win the market with 57 percent of the votes. My goal, as Corbett’s campaign manager, will be to keep Schwartz’s margin in this region in the low 60s. I have hired an order of contemplative nuns to pray for rain in the southeast on Election Day.
Two other important areas of the state are the Lancaster-Harrisburg-York media market, which is classically Republican, and the 12-county Pittsburgh market, the state’s second largest. It tilts Democratic.
Corbett won the central Pennsylvania market with 70 percent of the vote four years ago. On paper, it looks close to winnable for a Democrat in 2014, given the governor’s unpopularity among even Republican voters. But, those are today’s poll numbers, not the ones we will see next November.
As Corbett’s campaign manager, one reason I am rooting for Schwartz is that she can galvanize Corbett’s conservative Republican base.
All the Democratic candidates currently in the field tilt liberal on social issues, but Schwartz tilts the most. For instance, she not only favors abortion, she helped found a clinic in Philadelphia that offered abortions as part of its pregnancy counseling. Not good for her.
Schwartz helps bring these conservative Republicans home. One lingering problem that worries me as Corbett’s manager is the Penn State imbroglio. The central counties are the heart of Penn State territory and Corbett, in the eyes of these fans, is the man who destroyed the sainted Joe Pa. Not good for him.
Dyed-in-the-wool Republicans do not switch sides. They show displeasure with their candidate by not voting. As campaign manager, central Pennsylvania is where I will concentrate my field efforts to bring out identifiable Corbett voters. It’s a must-win area.
Now, we move to Pittsburgh. Corbett, who is from Pittsburgh, beat his fellow western Pennsylvanian Onorato in this market four years ago by nine percentage points. With Schwartz in the race — for that matter with any eastern candidate in the race — the strong preference of this region for homegrown candidates will help my guy.
Plus, Schwartz’s position on social issues won’t sit well with many of these voters, even the Democrats, who go by the antique name of Reagan Democrats. As Corbett’s campaign manager, I will focus my positive Corbett ads here, reminding voters he is one of them and agrees with them on issues such as abortion and gun control.
Under this scenario — hold down Schwartz’s numbers in the southeast, revive my support in Central Pa., become the ‘western candidate’ favored by Pittsburgh voters, I have a chance at winning.
It helps to look ahead, but the election is still a year away. Who knows? There could be a young Democrat in Pittsburgh by the name of Casey Flaherty who decides to give up bartending and run for governor. If he does, I’ll quit the Corbett campaign and go work for him. I like winners.
Photo: The Associated Press