ANALYSIS: Corbett faces uphill battle for 2nd term
HARRISBURG — Since Pennsylvania changed the law in 1968 to allow its governor to serve two consecutive terms, no incumbent has been denied re-election. But Tom Corbett, a Republican, is in danger of becoming the first.
Explanations have turned as much to the governor’s personality as his policies. Even his chief re-election strategist, John Brabender, said Corbett suffered by comparison to the governor next door, who, for better or worse, captures attention.
“Chris Christie is this dynamic, bantering politician who makes news on all sorts of national programs,” Brabender said. “Tom Corbett is somebody who goes to work and does their job to the best of their ability and doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about all those things.”
The governor, a direct, no-nonsense former attorney general, has not bounced back from an unpopular first year. Faced then with a $4 billion deficit, he honored a pledge not to raise taxes and presided over cuts that forced thousands of teacher layoffs and fewer services for the poor.
As he runs for re-election, he is widely seen as the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the country.
G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College, pointed to a Franklin & Marshall poll conducted in January showing that most Pennsylvania voters do not believe Corbett cares about people like them.
“He’s been unable to explain in language that was clear and unmistakable and compassionate what he’s been trying to do,” Madonna said.
With four Democrats vying for the chance to challenge Corbett, his advisers say polls will begin to reverse themselves once a specific opponent emerges from the primary on May 20. The potential challengers have begun to do the governor’s work for him, aggressively attacking one another, and especially the front-runner, Tom Wolf.
But even those in Corbett’s party do not always sound convinced. Republicans in the state Senate, for example, still talk about the last time Corbett paid them a visit. The moment preceded a vote on school vouchers, which the governor favored, but which made many senators nervous because of the opposition of teachers’ unions.
The senators were hoping Corbett was prepared to take the political heat, and even visit their districts, if needed. Instead, they heard a stump speech about school choice — and the governor left without taking questions. He has not been invited back to address the senators since, more than two years ago.
“Sometimes I think he still thinks he’s attorney general,” said Sen. Mike Folmer, a Republican who supports the governor but laments that his blunt style limits his appeal. “He doesn’t seem compassionate enough.”
In an interview, Corbett was affable and unguarded, as close associates say he is one on one. Standing in a corridor of Harrisburg University, where he had given a talk to schoolchildren at a science fair, he spoke in quarters close enough to frequently touch a reporter’s elbow.
He dismissed the idea that he faced a charisma gap with voters.
“This style got me elected,” he said. “I was hired to do a job. I was hired to go in there and make the tough decisions.”
Democrats are hammering at what they call Corbett’s $1 billion cut to education. Polls, including one by Quinnipiac University, show education is a top concern of voters, after jobs and the economy. It is true that classroom spending dropped by close to that figure, $841 million, in the governor’s first budget. But he argues that it was because federal stimulus dollars ended that year. He has restored money to education, and in February proposed an election-year budget increasing public school spending by $400 million.
“They don’t want to accept the truth because it is not convenient,” he said of his opponents.
Wolf, a former revenue secretary, called the governor’s explanation of a drop in federal stimulus money “crocodile tears” in a Democratic debate. He blamed him for 20,000 teachers who lost jobs.
“He was there to decide what the priorities of the state are, and he, for whatever reason, decided education is not a priority,” Wolf said.
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 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, 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.
But it is unclear whether the economy will benefit the governor. Pennsylvania’s 6 percent unemployment rate has dropped 2.1 points during his term. But the state ranked 48th in job creation last year, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Standard & Poor’s recently scolded state lawmakers for a budget out of whack between revenue and spending. In a year when other states have surpluses, Pennsylvania is facing a $1 billion deficit, for which critics say the governor’s business tax breaks are to blame.
“Tom Corbett has dug us into a hole because he has been ideologically driven to say no new revenues no matter what,” Schwartz said in the debate.
With the Democrats agreeing on their anti-Corbett line, they have turned on one another ahead of their primary. Wolf, a businessman from York, spent nearly $4.5 million of a personal fortune in an early airwaves barrage, portraying himself as a folksy outsider concerned about his employees. He opened a double-digit lead.
Now Schwartz is questioning his business practices, accusing him of structuring a buyout of his kitchen-cabinet company that led to layoffs of a majority of its workforce.
A third candidate, Rob McCord, the state treasurer, recently aired an ad harshly attacking Wolf for supporting a former mayor of York who played a role in a 1969 race riot. The ad drew an unusual rebuke from two of the state’s leading Democrats, Sen. Bob Casey and Edward G. Rendell, a former governor.
The fourth Democratic candidate, Katie McGinty, a former state secretary of the environment, has not attacked her rivals, but is lagging in fundraising and is not well known to voters.
Normally incumbents root for a particular opponent who they perceive would present the weakest target. Corbett and his advisers profess no preference for the Democrat they would most like to face. At the moment, they are enjoying watching the other side carve itself up.
Corbett said: “I’m not the politician; I’m the prosecutor. You can have all the opinions you want. I’ll take the facts.”