Pennsylvania’s elections this year will be front and center on the national scene, as there are numerous hotly contested congressional races and a U.S. Senate seat up for grabs. But attracting the most attention is the open race for governor.
To cut through the self-serving spin that surrounds elections, Freindly Fire sat down with Pittsburgh-based independent political consultant Michael O’Connell to receive a non-partisan analysis of the gubernatorial primary. O’Connell, who has worked the Pennsylvania political landscape for nearly 25 years, has no personal stake in any of the campaigns.
GOP Race: Corbett Vs. Rohrer
The presumptive Republican nominee in the gubernatorial race is Attorney General Tom Corbett. He has won statewide twice, including 2008, in what was an otherwise horrid year for Republicans. Corbett’s stunning 400,000 vote margin that year — when Barack Obama carried the state by 600,000 — cemented his status as the gubernatorial frontrunner.
Corbett has also made headlines for his successful prosecution of legislative corruption, known as the "Bonusgate" scandal, and more recently when he joined other Attorneys-General in supporting a lawsuit against the national health care law.
That success has contributed to a war chest of $4 million.
As a comparison, his opponent, State Representative Sam Rohrer, has raised $500,000, and had only $15,000 in the bank as of the last reporting period.
Rohrer, an 18 year veteran of the state house, touts himself as a constitutional conservative, while Corbett is anchoring his campaign on fiscal discipline, limited government, and free enterprise.
The Attorney General, endorsed by Republican State Committee, holds a commanding lead in the polls, but the Rohrer campaign believes it can win by mobilizing its grassroots machine. Rohrer is not seeking re-election to the House.
Freindly Fire: Despite the fact that Corbett has consistently campaigned on conservative principles, some Tea Partiers and other conservatives are backing Rohrer because of his conservative credentials. Yet Rohrer voted for the infamous unconstitutional payraise in 2005 — when legislators pocketed the money in that term — and voted to increase his pension by 50%. Do you think some conservatives are giving him a free pass on these issues? Why?
Mike O’Connell: Here we get to the politics of style versus substance.
For anyone familiar with Harrisburg, the notion that an eighteen-year-legislator, who cast the votes you just mentioned, and who was content to work with House leaders—including former Speaker John Perzel, bravely demonized by many on the Right now that he is no longer in power—is now somehow an outsider and political rebel is just silly.
That’s the substance.
The style is different: what the "tea party" movement sees is a graduate of Bob Jones University—which it must be said is a pretty good first step in establishing one to be, or at least to have been at age eighteen, out of the political mainstream—who avers that he is an outsider is taken at face value by those who value outsider-ness . . . and to the degree the movement prides itself on not knowing what state government does, ignoring actual votes cast by a flesh-and-blood legislator is not only convenient but can be a badge of honor.
There is also frankly a measure of cynicism among some of Rohrer’s institutional supporters: a wide array of conservative groups in Harrisburg have had a field day, and for good reason, in the Rendell years. The prospect of a Republican governor is for them a mixed blessing. Their relevance, which is already open to question in some cases, and their mission are likely to be a bit confused.
It bears noting, by the way, that Rohrer’s rhetoric has been relatively subdued compared to the excesses of many candidates pursuing the support of what is identified as the "tea party movement." The points out his seriousness about this venture: he is running for governor rather than indulging a desire to trash his opponents. Sam Rohrer is not going to be the Republican nominee—I would be shocked if he captured even a quarter of the vote or carried a single county—but he has acquitted himself with dignity.
The same cannot be said for at least some of the would be "tea party" candidates for Lieutenant Governor, of whom there may be more than there were actual participants at the Boston Tea Party in 1773. At least one, hitherto a party loyalist of unvarying regularity at the county and state level, has dipped into family money to run a campaign with all the restraint usually associated with a blood-crazed ferret.
FF: Rohrer has made school choice one of the cornerstones of his campaign, but he didn’t support voucher legislation in the past. Instead, he advocates a tax credit to businesses that contribute to a scholarship fund. What is your view as to Rohrer’s approach to the school choice issue?
MOC: I was intimately involved in the legislative battle over school choice in 1995, when the position taken by Sam Rohrer and a handful of other conservative legislators was that a helping hand extended to middle- and low-income parents seeking to take their kids out of failing public schools would somehow destroy the non-public schools in question. It is probable that they made the difference between victory and defeat for school choice that year; given how many non-public schools in urban areas have been forced to close since then, I think it is unlikely that there is much of a reservoir of gratitude among the parents and teachers who were thus "saved" from having tuition kept in an affordable range.
The EITC, which Rohrer supports, is a good thing that has made a real difference for many non-public schools. Despite wildly exaggerated claims that have been made by some of Rohrer’s supporters about his role in passing that legislation, I have no doubt that his support is sincere.
FF: Past insurgent primary campaigns have gained traction in this state. But with the overwhelming advantages Corbett has in name recognition, campaign funds, and the fact that he has been so successful in two statewide elections, what can the Rohrer camp do to steal a victory?
MOC: The problem for Rohrer is that insurgent campaigns have not ever gained traction in Pennsylvania. The last real ideological wars among Pennsylvania Republicans were in the forties and fifties, as rival establishments opposed each other. Pat Toomey’s near miss against Arlen Specter in 2004 is arguably the great exception, but one that rested on Specter’s long-established problems within his own party.
The great wave of primary defeats in 2006 was a single-issue wave revolving around the pay raise, not a reflection of a larger trend.
FF: What is your prediction as to the outcome of the GOP race, the level of voter turnout, and what must the winner do in the fall to counter the 1.2 million voter registration edge the Democrats enjoy in the state?
MOC: The race for the Republican nomination for governor only looks like a cliffhanger if your standard of comparison is the contest for the Republican nomination for the U. S. Senate. At a guess, Republican turnout will be about thirty percent, with precious few people voting who have not been fairly regular primary voters over the years. As I mentioned before, my bet is that Corbett carries every county and finishes statewide with a percentage well over seventy.
Democratic Primary: A Crowded Field
The Democratic gubernatorial primary had all the makings of an exciting race: two longtime enemies were facing off like the Hatfields and McCoys — Auditor General Jack Wagner and Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato—, black State Senator Anthony Williams who, while a late entrant, brought a multi-million war chest with him, and perennial candidate Joe Hoeffel, a Montgomery County Commissioner who lambasts his opponents as way too conservative.
Exciting as that script seemed just a few months ago, the race now appears to be a fait accompli, with Onorato ahead in the polls by thirty points, thanks in large part to his massive fundraising advantage.
Even though it appears that Onorato will be anointed the Democratic candidate, the general election will be no picnic. While benefitting from a large voter registration edge, he will face both history and a hostile political climate.
It’s a virtual certainty that voter backlash will negatively affect Democrats, in part because of unpopular presidential policies, a severe recession, and the fact that they are the sole Party in power in Washington.
In addition to off-year elections almost always benefiting the minority Party, the gubernatorial candidates also have state history to contend with: since governors were permitted to run for two terms, beginning in 1970, that office, without fail, has traded hands every eight years. Given that the current occupant is Democrat Ed Rendell, the GOP is looking to keep that cycle intact.
FF: After looking at the fundraising numbers, the most obvious question is how anyone can beat Onorato. Having raised over $8 million, and with the de facto endorsement of Gov. Ed Rendell, what scenario is there for any of the other Democrats to pull out a victory?
MOC: The short answer is that there isn’t one. Onorato will not get the same numbers Corbett will—I certainly haven’t heard sober people talking about Onorato getting eighty percent, as some have of Corbett—but both parties for all practical purposes already have their nominees.
In passing, let me point out that the much-vaunted "eight-year rule" is little more than a series of interesting coincidences, which a tiny vote shift could have broken in 1986, 1982, 1958, and arguably in 1994 as well.
Any Republican strategist who treats it as some Newtonian law of politics this year needs to spend some time studying the political history of the state.
FF: Sen. Williams has raised over $4 million, and has been on statewide television for several weeks. As the only Democrat to be on the airwaves other than Onorato, can Williams count on the black vote in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to unify behind his candidacy en masse, and could this be enough to eke out a victory?
MOC: I don’t doubt for a moment that he will be the overwhelming choice of African-American voters statewide, which may well be enough to propel him to an honorable if distant second-place finish.
What he’s failed to do, as he campaigns on a combination of issues—gun control and abortion—where the power of the Commonwealth is sharply limited by the federal courts and one—school choice—where he is completely out of step with substantial and powerful elements in his party, is identify a chink in Dan Onorato’s armor. With just days to go, it is simply too late.
FF: Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, the self-proclaimed true liberal in the race, has little money but substantial name recognition from his long career in public service. As the only candidate in vote-rich suburban Philadelphia, Hoeffel’s strategy is to win the majority of the left-leaning Democratic base, while benefitting from Onorato and Wagner slugfest in the Pittsburgh region. Is there any validity to this strategy, and what impact can a Hoeffel candidacy have on the rest of the field?
MOC: The strategy is not inherently unsound, even given the complex nature of the Democratic primary electorate here. In this particular case, Joe Hoeffel seems to have run into a few problems, however.
First, despite having run for Congress in 1984, 1986, 1998, 2000, and 2002, and for county commissioner in 1991, 1995, and 2007 in what is easily the most affluent county in the state, while spending 2004 campaigning for the U. S. Senate in the fifth-largest state in the Union, he appears not to have developed a fund-raising base able to come close to carrying him through a serious statewide campaign.
Second, Democrats who are concerned about who is and is not a "real Democrat" this year have one focus—the contest for the United States Senate. This increasingly looks like a real problem for Arlen Specter, but it means that the limited window of opportunity for Hoeffel closed some time ago.
FF: Auditor General Jack Wagner is the only candidate in the Democratic field to have successfully run statewide, earning the second-most votes ever amassed by a candidate. He has received numerous county endorsements, and is widely considered a conservative, pro-business Democrat not afraid to tackle government waste and corruption. Yet with Wagner’s fundraising being so dismal (he had only $210,000 in the bank as of the last period), is it possible for Wagner to beat his long-time nemesis Onorato, who enjoys an 8 to 1 cash advantage?
MOC: No. Few myths in Pennsylvania are more persistent than the one that suggests that winning second-tier state offices somehow paves the way to higher office. Eighteen years after the elder Bob Casey was elected Auditor General as a consolation prize for his first defeat in a race for governor, he was elected governor, but that hardly disproves the rule.
Beyond that, look at the results: the younger Casey is drilled in a gubernatorial primary in 2002, Barbara Hafer runs for governor as Auditor General in 1990 and loses counties that had not voted against a Republican nominee for governor since the party was formed, and Genevive Blatt while serving as the elected Secretary of Internal Affairs manages in 1964 to be nearly the only Democrat in the country to lose a race for the United States Senate.
We’ve seen a serving Auditor General lose a primary for the Senate in 1986, a serving Lieutenant Governor lose a Senate primary in 1992 and another one a general election for governor in 1986, and serving Attorneys General lose a primary for governor in 1994 and a general election for the same office in 2002.
County party support, help from organized labor, a proven ability to work the room at a fraternal club, service as Auditor General: all this leaves Jack Wagner in a great position were he running as recently as 1958. None of it matters today, after a few developments that long ago became old news—the advent of television, never mind the new media, the collapse of the old party machines, and the ever-increasing imperative that candidates raise enough money to drive home their message.
FF: Dan Onorato enjoys the support of some of Rendell’s biggest fundraisers and closest confidantes, such as Comcast Executive David Cohen and Ballard Spahr partner and former Rendell Chief of Staff John Estey. But given the Rendell Administration’s reputation for awarding no-bid contracts to large-dollar contributors, and the Governor’s unabashed push for increased spending, bigger government, and significant tax hikes, how much will the perceived alignment with Rendell hurt Onorato, if at all?
MOC: In the Democratic primary, not at all. I think we will hear a fair amount about it in the fall, though.
FF: Prediction in the Democratic Primary?
MOC: Onorato wins comfortably, with between 45 and 50 percent of the vote.
FF: November is a political eternity away, but at this point, what is your prediction for who will be Pennsylvania’s next Governor?
MOC: The national political climate, Pennsylvania’s looming fiscal calamity, and his own track record all seem to work in Tom Corbett’s favor.
Anything can happen, but we are well out of the starting gate and he is several lengths ahead.
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and investigative reporter who operates his own news bureau, www.FreindlyFireZone.com
Readers of his column, "Freindly Fire," hail from six continents, thirty countries and all fifty states. His work has been referenced in numerous publications including The Wall Street Journal, National Review Online, foreign newspapers, and in Dick Morris’ recent bestseller "Catastrophe."
Freind also serves as a weekly guest commentator on the Philadelphia-area talk radio show, Political Talk (WCHE 1520), and makes numerous other television and radio appearances. He can be reached at [email protected]