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election 2014 sig_wide lighterIf money talks in politics, then Tom Wolf has been shouting for the last four months.

The York County businessman built his lead in the Democratic primary for governor with early and aggressive spending on television ads. He has held that lead ever since.

Wolf’s media buys averaged $2.5 million a month January through April, but his most significant spending—in terms of results—came early in the race.  On January 16, Wolf wrote a check for $1 million to his media firm, Shorr Johnson Magnus, to purchase airtime on television statewide.

That allowed him sole possession of the airways for weeks to tell the Tom Wolf story, in the process going from an unknown to the best-known candidate in the race.

Riding around in his jeep, Wolf came across a regular guy from a small town who also happened to be a wealthy and successful businessman. Who knew there was that much money in kitchen cabinets?

Wolf’s early burst forward has defined the race ever since, with his opponents—U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, state Treasurer Rob McCord and former state Environmental Secretary Katie McGinty—trying to play catch up, apparently to little effect.

It has been a costly campaign.

As of May 4, the last disclosure date, the four Democratic candidates had spent a total of $30 million. They had $4.3 million left in their campaign accounts and much of that will be spent between May 4 and May 20, which is Primary Election Day.

From the beginning, Wolf has had the advantage in money as well.

He put $10 million of his own into his campaign and raised another $4.4 million from contributors.

He’s not the only one putting his personal fortune on the line.  McCord has given $2.3 million to his campaign (they are listed as loans on his campaign disclosure report).  McGinty loaned her campaign $535,000, though she repaid $300,000 of it to herself recently.

At this stage of the campaign, the candidates have filed hundreds of pages of documentation disclosing information about how they raised and spent money.  As always, these numbers have stories to tell.  Here are some of them.

The hidden wealth of York County.…

Never known as an epicenter of big givers, York County has come into its own in this campaign. Wolf, who was born and raised in the county, has been a business and community leader for years. Over time, he’s made friends with fellow business people, who stepped forward with generous donations to his campaign.  Among them is Thomas Gumbacher, chair of the Bon-Ton department store chain, who gave Wolf $1 million.

Louis Appell Jr., owner of the former Susquehanna Pfaltzgraff, gave $475,000. Bill Zimmerman, a retired York businessman, gave $300,000 and George Hodges, president of York Water Co., gave $200,000.  This is not small change.

Many smaller givers stepped forward, too.  About 80 percent of the givers in Wolf’s first campaign report came from York and environs.

The power of incumbency…?

On the one hand, two of the candidates hold elected office and that has been a boon for them in this campaign.  Rep. Allyson Schwartz had $3.5 million in her congressional campaign fund, which she transferred over to her gubernatorial campaign.  McCord had $2.3 million in his state treasurer’s fund.  He emptied that into his McCord for Governor campaign fund.

On the other hand… that meant both candidates had money early in the campaign to go up on TV, but it is clear their strategy was to hold their millions in reserve and concentrate their media spending on the final weeks.  McCord did spend $1.7 million on TV, most of it in March.  During the January to March period, while Wolf spent $4.5 million on ads, Schwartz spent zero.

As incumbents, McCord and Schwartz began the year as the better-known candidates. By April, they had been overshadowed by Wolf.

The enemy of my enemy….

Al Lord, the retired CEO of Sallie Mae, is a Penn State alum who truly, deeply dislikes the role Tom Corbett played in investigating the Penn State sex scandal. He had a one-on-one chat with McCord early in the campaign, decided he was the guy to beat Corbett, and has given him $750,000 in contributions.

In a similar vein, AFSCME District Council 13, which represents state employees, made a $100,000 donation to McCord, and the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association, which represents state prison guards, also gave McCord $100,000.

If you don’t have anything good to say about someone…

Hire a media consultant and tell the world.  That’s been the McCord strategy in the final stages of the campaign.  Most of his initial $1.7 million spending on TV was on positive “Telling the Rob McCord” story ads—a sort of rags-to riches tale, without necessarily the rags.  Most of the $3.8 million McCord has spent on media since April 1 have been attack ads, aimed at kneecapping Wolf. The ads criticize Wolf (in so many words) as being a fellow-traveler with a racist candidate and a deceitful businessman who robbed his company’s pension fund and, generally speaking, a small-town, ne’er do well miscreant.

This has resulted in something of an arms race, forcing Wolf to spend money on ads answering McCord’s ads. In terms of money alone, Wolf is winning the arms race so far.  He has spent $5 million on advertising since April 1.

Gov. Rendell and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey both decried the McCord ads, saying they were unfair and untrue and, more to the point, merely served the purpose of helping Gov. Corbett.  The ads stayed up.

McCord’s problem is the rule of diffusion.  Wolf entered the final weeks of the campaign with a double-digit lead over his rivals.  If the McCord ads succeed in cutting that lead, who will benefit?  McCord could get some of the points that have fallen off Wolf, but then so might Schwartz and McGinty, as Democrats look for another favorite.

The net result: Wolf maintains a diminished, but significant lead.

Where are the big players?

For all the money raised and spent, what is interesting about the campaign reports is the relative lack of giving by the usual big-time givers to Democratic candidates.  There are two notable exceptions:

Emily’s List, a national PAC dedicated to electing women to public office, has been a Schwartz stalwart.  As of May 4, the PAC had given her $635,000.

IBEW Local 98, the Philadelphia-area electricians union headed by John Dougherty, has been all-Schwartz-all-the-time as well.  Johnny Doc is known as a big spender and his union has forked over $300,000 to the Schwartz campaign.

Other than that, most of the players are sitting this primary out: Most of the state’s unions, the trial lawyers, the politically connected law firms, the big-number lobbyists have spread a few thousand around—just to make sure everyone gets something—but no one has laid down a big bet.  (Campaign giving is, after all, a form of legalized gambling.)

Most mysterious is the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), a political powerhouse that represents most of the state’s public-school teachers.

The PSEA endorsed McCord early one, but hasn’t followed up—at least as of May 4—with much money.  The union gave him $27, 500 early to help pay for a poll, but nothing since.  This is a union capable of giving hundreds of thousands to a favored statewide candidate. A spokesman for the union said it considers the $27,500 as “fairly generous.”  In a race like this, it’s more like chump change.

What happened to these big givers?

Maybe, like the rest of us, they are waiting until the day after the May 20 primary to see who emerges as the Democratic winner.


Cover graphic by Julia Bergman.  Spending as of May 4, 2014.