Analysis: Democratic Candidates for PA Governor

Member Group : Freindly Fire

The 2010 election cycle in Pennsylvania will be one of the most important in decades, highlighted by the gubernatorial contest. History favors the Republicans, since the governor’s office has switched hands every eight years since 1968, when governors were first permitted to serve two terms.

That said, the Democrats are not going quietly into the night. Conversely, the field continues to grow as more see promise that the eight-year trend may finally break due to the Democrats’ 1.2 million voter edge.

It is far too early to state that 2010 will be a watershed year for Republicans, as many in the GOP believe. While popular Attorney General Tom Corbett looms as the expected Republican nominee (he won a stunning victory in last year’s election, posting a 400,000 vote margin in an otherwise horrific year for Republicans), he must still get past Congressman Jim Gerlach’s insurgent candidacy.

No matter the GOP opponent, the Democrats will post a formidable challenger. Following is an analysis of the five most likely candidates, and their chances for victory:

Philadelphia Businessman Tom Knox

Many political observers believe that the next governor of Pennsylvania will be named "Tom," and there is credible evidence behind this theory. While Tom Corbett is in the GOP’s driver seat, Tom Knox brings a plethora of assets to the race, and will present substantial obstacles for his opponents.

First and foremost, Knox can and will self-fund a large portion of his campaign warchest. He spent $12 million in his bid for Mayor of Philadelphia in 2007, narrowly losing to Michael Nutter. In doing so, he became a household name in southeastern Pennsylvania, which just happens to be home to 45% of the state’s electorate – a huge benefit to Knox.

Most political observers believe that $10 million is the minimum needed for the primary. Since Knox will easily pass this threshold, he immediately gains a huge advantage over his opponents. While they will spend their time fundraising, Knox will be traveling the state meeting, greeting – and raising even more money.

Knox’s positions on the issues also make him attractive to many of the state’s moderate Democrats, especially those in the northeastern and southwestern sections of Pennsylvania. He has been an outspoken leader in opposing electric deregulation and the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh Blues merger, and supports school choice and tort reform, both issues of significant interest to the business community.

At this point, color Knox the frontrunner.

Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato

Watch for Onorato to emerge as the Ed Rendell legacy candidate. While Rendell has not officially endorsed anyone – yet – it is clear to many that his close relationship with Onorato will be exploited to maximum effect during the campaign.

Onorato already has $5 million in his campaign fund. That gives him a solid start, and may be enough to weed out the rest of the field, with the exception of Knox. And while Rendell’s approval rating is dismal, he is still a popular figure in Philadelphia and its suburbs. Ed Rendell’s touting of Onorato, along with the use of the Rendell political machine, is certainly good for a significant boost, especially important because Onorato is barely known in the state’s most expensive media market.

But years as Allegheny County Executive comes with baggage. While Onorato pushed through a hugely unpopular drink tax, his biggest liability may be what many consider conflicts of interest with campaign donors. This could be a substantial negative factor, particularly since the current governor has been roundly criticized for his widespread conflicts, with some even suggesting rampant pay-to-play activity.

In an era where voters are increasingly concerned about the appearance of impropriety and corruption in state government, Dan Onorato may be in the wrong race at the wrong time.

Scranton Mayor Chris Doherty

While a nice town, Scranton is home to only 70,000 people, hardly the major metropolis in which an unknown mayor can launch a credible statewide campaign. The Keystone State has two major media markets, including the nation’s fourth largest, and they are not cheap. Going from a zero name ID to even 30 per cent will be extremely expensive, and Doherty will simply not be able to raise the campaign cash necessary to achieve this minimum level of effectiveness.

Since there are townships with more people than Scranton, it is clear that Doherty’s candidacy for governor is a joke, amounting to nothing more than a ploy to raise name ID for a Lt. Gov. run. No more ink is necessary for a non-starter like Doherty.

Auditor General Jack Wagner

Jack Wagner has proven to be an effective, independent Auditor General, one who has shown political courage by taking on Gov. Rendell and his Administration on various fiscal issues.

A former state senator, Wagner is a proven vote-getter in statewide elections, an endeavor none of his opponents has undertaken. Hailing from the same southwest base as Onorato, Wagner could pose huge problems for the Allegheny County Executive. While not being able to raise the same level of money as Onorato, Wagner’s possible motivation could prove more troublesome. It’s no secret that the Wagner-Onorato feud is viewed as akin to the Hatfields and McCoys; many observers think Wagner may jump into the race to play the spoiler.

An unheard of tactic? Try again. Just look at last spring’s district attorney race in Philadelphia. Dan McCaffery was one of only two viable candidates in the Democratic primary, yet two of his four opponents (like him, both white Irish Americans) stayed in the race to the end. Their disdain for McCaffery was palpable, and they clearly affected the dynamic of the race. McCaffery came in second.

Many Republicans have praised Wagner, which will not help him in a Democratic primary, but the biggest obstacle facing the Auditor General is his lack of fundraising prowess. If he can find a way to solve that problem, he will be an extremely viable candidate. Look for a Wagner candidacy soon, with a possible drop-out announcement a few months later, but not before Onorato’s image is seriously tarnished.

Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel

The recent announcement of a Hoeffel candidacy has the political observers buzzing, because on paper, it changes the dynamics of the race. A second candidate from the vote-rich southeast now dilutes the once-solid Knox base, especially since Hoeffel is a well-known figure who has represented Montgomery County for two decades.

While a Hoeffel candidacy is intriguing, it remains to be seen if he can raise the money to compete. If Onorato becomes the de facto candidate of Gov. Rendell, watch for the fundraising spigot to close from Rendell’s large-dollar contributors, many of whom hail from Montgomery County.

Interestingly, the Hoeffel candidacy places Rendell in an awkward position. A second candidate from the southeast would help Onorato, but if Hoeffel’s star falls quickly due to a lack of support, Tom Knox and his imposing warchest would again take center stage. Yet if Rendell tacitly helps Hoeffel to hurt Knox, there exists the possibility that Hoeffel would catapult to the head of the pack and end up hurting Onorato.

Conspiracy theory aside, Hoeffel is aided by the fact that he controls millions in county and federal stimulus money, and many recipients of such largesse would no doubt show their appreciation by supporting a Hoeffel gubernatorial campaign. If that becomes the case, however, Hoeffel will have to contend with charges of conflicts of interest, likely to be one of the hot-button issues in the campaign.

Hoeffel is no stranger to that. In a 1993 Philadelphia Inquirer editorial, he was criticized for coming close to selling his office after sending a letter to supporters that "managed to tout both his key policy-making position as a county commissioner ("I have found myself ‘in the loop’ of policy and personnel decisions") and his continued availability as a Norristown lawyer ‘to consult with you on any legal matters you might have,’"according to the editorial.

The newspaper stated that it would "feel more forgiving about the whole business, if Mr. Hoeffel himself conceded the perception problem – heck, it sounded like unabashed influence-peddling – instead of pawning it off as the creation of partisan mischief."

If Hoeffel makes it to the spring, watch for that editorial to become part of your everyday television and radio lineup.

Hoeffel also has to contend with the perception that he cannot win a statewide race. His highly-touted announcement for U.S. Senate in 2004 was the highpoint of the Hoeffel campaign. He proved to be a non-entity against Arlen Specter, getting trounced by an 11 point margin.

Chris Freind, author of "Freindly Fire," is an independent newspaper columnist and investigative reporter whose readers hail from six continents, thirty countries, and all fifty states. His home publication is The Philadelphia Bulletin. He can be reached at [email protected]