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It’s odd how the race for the Democratic nomination for governor has ended before it ever really began.
There is a consensus—confirmed by recent poll numbers—that York County businessman Tom Wolf, an unknown three months ago, has a lock on the nomination even though the Election Day isn’t until May 20.
There are still many undecided Democrats, but Wolf holds such a commanding lead that even getting a modest share of those ‘not sure’ voters will hand him the nomination.
There is a simple explanation for Wolf’s success. He’s the guy who is spending $10 million of his own money on the campaign. He went up early and often with well-done, effective and positive TV commercials. None of the other candidates have come close to matching him in volume.
This, in turn, gave him an early and so far unshakable lead over better-known candidates, such as U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and state Treasurer Rob McCord. A fourth candidate, Katie McGinty, a former state Department of Environmental Resources secretary, is much lesser known and seems destined to stay that way.
There is also a more complex explanation for Wolf’s lead.
In a race where all of the Democratic candidates trend left/progressive, there is little to differentiate them on the issues. (As George Wallace used to remind voters: “There’s not a dime’s worth of difference….”)
So, voters look for other cues to help them make up their minds, such as gender, ethnicity, geography and personality.
Most people know Wolf only from his commercials, and they obviously like what they see. He doesn’t come across as a professional politician—far from it, he looks vaguely professorial. He is a self-made man with business experience who promises to apply those talents to Pennsylvania’s problems.
He has a pro-growth, pro-jobs, pro-education message that exudes optimism.
And people could sure use some optimism.
It’s a sign of the times that when I made calls last week to the usual suspects—political professionals without a direct stake in any of the campaigns—their talk focused not on the primary (that’s where I heard the phrase “It’s over” again and again) but on the general election.
Can Wolf beat Gov. Tom Corbett?
As it turns out, that’s a rhetorical question—in the minds of my sources. Again, a consensus: Corbett is toast.
In many ways, Wolf is the worst candidate Corbett could draw because of a series of “nots” associated with his candidacy that translate into strengths. He is not an elected official— with a voting record that can be picked apart. He is not from Philadelphia or environs, thus enabling Corbett to rally western Pennsylvania to his cause by casting him as a candidate of the wicked big city. He is also not wildly unpopular, as Corbett is.
The only reliable cudgel at Corbett’s disposal will be to label Wolf a tax-and-spend liberal, which he arguably is. Or, to use the more perfervid language of attack ads: “A Tax-and-Spend Liberal with a Radical Agenda!” Here you can add as many exclamation points as you want.
Run enough of these and it will firm up Corbett’s base, which is sagging badly now. But it won’t draw Democrats, nor will it win over many independents, and those two blocs represent the majority of Pennsylvania voters.
Conventional wisdom demands that we offer a caveat: that Corbett will have $30 million to spend, plus an undetermined cache of independent PAC ads, that could deflate any opponent.
To be honest, I don’t see it. The level of displeasure with the governor within his own party will exhibit itself by him having difficulties raising money. The outside Citizens Voice SuperPACs won’t want to spend millions here, when the money can be better spent to help elect a true-blue conservative in a more competitive state.
The governor is partly a victim of circumstances. He took office while we were still suffering from the aftershocks of the recession. The state economy and tax revenues have been slow to recover. “We’re doing better than we were, but not as good as we could be!” isn’t much of a re-election slogan.
But, you can’t underestimate the sheer power of incompetency.
Corbett hasn’t performed well on a personal level. Most of the time he has come across as either uncaring or just confused. Until recently, he didn’t have a strong support staff. And he can’t seem to buy a break.
Take the example of Penn State, please. As Attorney General, Corbett prosecuted the sex-abuse case against Jerry Sandusky (and, by proxy, Joe Paterno and other university officials for covering up.)
I think he made the right call as a prosecutor. Politically, though, reaction seems divided into two camps: half the people think he went too far and half believe he didn’t go far enough. What’s a fella to do?
That said, there could still be a surprise turn of events that could damage Wolf or lift up Corbett. As Attorney General Kathleen Kane can tell you, stuff does happen that can disrupt the normal flow of your workday.
But, you know things are bad when Republicans—note Republicans—are talking about whether a Corbett drubbing will be so bad it will harm other GOP candidates for state legislative and congressional seats. And whether the Democrats can regain control of the state Senate. (The state House seems a bridge too far.)
No one knows, but Republicans know enough to make them wince at the thought of the next nine months.