HERSHEY — Spending in the wide-open campaign for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is beginning in earnest, and TV commercials might be on the air for the remaining 15 weeks before voters settle it in the primary election.
As of Friday, little-known York businessman Tom Wolf was the only candidate in a field of seven Democrats to have ads on the air. But the little-known label may not stick with Wolf for long. After a week of nearly statewide advertising costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, Wolf is getting stopped in public or honked at by people who recognize him, a spokesman said.
“Whenever you can run a week’s worth of TV ads and already people are recognizing your candidate at a pretty high clip, it shows that things are clicking, things are moving,” Wolf campaign spokesman Mark Nicastre said.
On Friday, Wolf and the other candidates for the Democratic nomination assembled in Hershey for a forum ahead of the party’s weekend meeting, at which committee members will debate whether, or which candidate, to endorse in the primary election.
Wolf is investing $10 million of his own money in his campaign and reported more campaign cash on hand than any other candidate as of Dec. 31. He said after the forum that he plans to air TV ads daily through the May 20 primary election.
Asked why he thinks Democratic primary voters would support a wealthy, self-financing candidate, Wolf said they’re looking for someone they can get to know and trust. To that end, Wolf said he hopes to use his deep pockets as an advantage, to tell his story on TV and show that he is independent of special interests.
“I am beholden only to me,” Wolf said.
His best-financed rivals, Treasurer Rob McCord and U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, each have millions of dollars in campaign cash and could start advertising on TV in the coming weeks. Those campaigns are saying little about their plans. But those candidates are racking up endorsements from labor unions or key party figures that could give them a better force of campaign volunteers.
Money to spend on TV may make the crucial difference in a campaign in which the candidates’ name recognition is low and their stances on core Democratic Party issues are similar. If Wolf prevails in the primary, it would not be the first time in Pennsylvania that a wealthy businessman used his financial muscle to win.
In 2012, Armstrong County businessman and tea party favorite Tom Smith used his fortune from the coal mining industry to help capture nearly 40 percent of the vote and win a low-profile, five-way race for the Republican nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat. Casey defeated Smith to win a second term.
For now, Wolf’s campaign said it is airing three different ads, with media buys in every media market except Erie.
In a 60-second ad, Wolf, who holds a doctorate in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a Peace Corps volunteer, introduces himself to viewers with the help of his wife and daughters. In a 30-second ad, he accuses the political establishment in Harrisburg of “thinking only about themselves and the special interests who helped get them elected.” And in another 30-second ad, he discusses his practice of profit-sharing with employees at a building materials distributor, The Wolf Organization Inc., which his family founded in 1843.
Wolf has never run for office, but he served briefly as Rendell’s secretary of revenue.