Politically Uncorrected: Are Pennsylvania Democrats Too Optimistic?

PA-Governor-Mansion2It’s the worst kept secret in state politics.

As Pennsylvania’s 2014 gubernatorial election approaches, GOP incumbent Tom Corbett looms as the weakest incumbent in modern state history. Indeed, many independent national analysts actually consider him the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the nation.

This state of things is not normal politics in the Keystone state. Far from it.

Traditionally, incumbent governors running for reelection have held so many political advantages that defeating them became a hopeless, quixotic quest by the “out” party, be they Democrat or Republican. In fact, the out-party running against incumbent governors usually has had trouble even finding credible challengers.

But not this election.

Instead, state Democrats, inspired by Corbett’s low popularity, are lining up in unprecedented numbers to run against him. The current field of eight announced candidates includes three former cabinet secretaries, a senior congresswoman, the incumbent state treasurer, and an incumbent city mayor.  Additional challengers may yet enter the fray including a former state auditor general.  Not only is it a large field, but a strong one.

These two factors, Corbett’s historically low support together with the strength of the Democrat’s field, convince many observers that the governor’s fate is sealed.  He can’t win in 2014. Republicans should probably just start to line up the moving vans they will need when the voters banish them from Harrisburg.

Maybe, but don’t bet too much on it.

Predicting Corbett’s demise more than a year before election day may turn out to be like the false “reports” of Mark Twain’s death: “greatly exaggerated.”

In point of fact, the past half century of state gubernatorial elections suggests next year’s race is likely to bring its share of surprises. What looks like a gathering Republican train wreck in fall of 2013 could become a close election in the fall of 2014.

There are at least five compelling reasons to draw that conclusion:

●      Pennsylvania gubernatorial incumbents always win and usually win big. Pennsylvania governors have been eligible to seek re-election since Milton Shapp’s first victory in 1970. Since then each incumbent governor has sought reelection and each has succeeded. In 1974, Shapp won by 300,000 votes; Bob Casey in 1990 was re-elected by more than one million; Tom Ridge in 1998 secured his re-election victory by 27 points; and Ed Rendell coasted in 2006 by 21 points. Only Dick Thornburgh in 1982 was challenged seriously and that re-election year coincided with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Even so, Thornburgh won by 100,000 votes.

●      Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly vote against the party of the sitting president.  In 18 of the last 19 gubernatorial elections, they have done exactly that. For Democrats the statistics are equally bleak. When a Democrat has been in the White House (as is the case now) the party has lost 16 of 17 gubernatorial elections back to 1860. If a Democrat does win in 2014 it will be only the second time in 154 years a Democrat has won while the Democratic Party held the White House.

●      Democrats don’t always play nice with each other. It’s likely that the Democratic primary race will turn nasty. Most contested primaries do and this one, given the stakes and expectations, almost certainly will. Well before primary day rolls around voters will be treated to an avalanche of facts, figures and charges impugning the integrity, policy positions and even personal lives of the candidates. This negative advertising will inevitably weaken the eventual nominee in the fall contest. Corbett, with no primary opponent, can watch as the Democrats in this large field proceed to attack each other.

●      Winning the Democratic primary might mean losing the General Election.  In the last decade or so, Democratic voters in the populous eastern part of the state have become more liberal while the state as a whole has remained politically moderate. Consequently the typical 2014 Democratic primary voter will likely be well to the left of the average state voter.  Given the current Democratic field of mostly social liberals—pro-choice on abortion and for gay marriage – it’s plausible that liberal Democratic primary voters might push the ultimate nominee so far to the left that more moderate general election voters will not support them.

●      Money will heavily influence this election.  Cash is king in Pennsylvania statewide elections and any Democrat expecting to replace Corbett will need to raise plenty of it. A hugely expensive media state, Pennsylvania’s 2014 primary will cost a minimum of $5 million to compete, probably twice that to win. And that’s just a start. The Democratic nominee must keep pace with Corbett’s own fundraising, which may reach or exceed $30 million for the general election.  Corbett’s ability to raise campaign cash is a huge advantage to him.

Any one of these factors should give pause to those who believe Corbett can’t win or that Democrats can’t lose. All five factors must be sobering.

No doubt, Corbett is an unusually weak incumbent who can be defeated. But he still is the incumbent and to defeat him the Democratic nominee must demonstrate leadership, articulate vision and offer an alternative set of policies acceptable to voters. Right now that looks easy. The challenge for Democrats is to make sure it still looks easy a year from now.

October 1st, 2013 | Posted in Front Page Stories, Guest Commentary, Harrisburg, Top Stories | 11 Comments

11 thoughts on “Politically Uncorrected: Are Pennsylvania Democrats Too Optimistic?”

  1. Time says:

    I always enjoy reading Madonna and Young’s insights into the politics of the Keystone State. Thanks so much!

  2. Denny Bonavita says:

    Out here in the “Alabama T,” Wagner stands the best chance against Corbett.

  3. tommyd says:

    The first two reasons aren’t very compelling to me – they are like saying the coin flip will turn up tails because the last four flips were heads or that the Steelers will beat the Bengals because they did before, forgetting that the Steelers suck this year. I’m surprised the professors would mount such superstitious arguments.

  4. The Lizard says:

    And Pennsylvanians never elected a Democrat or a woman to the Attorney General’s job either, but, oops, last year happened and then. . . . There is never a history of anything occurring out of the ordinary until, you know, it does. Ridge and Rendell are both smart guys. Corbett hasn’t shown smarts about anything he’s done so far in office. Why should he start now?

  5. Baxter G says:

    Of at the candidates fighting to face Corbett, those with best odds of success:

    1) McCord
    2) Wolf
    3) McGinty
    4) Schwartz
    5) Pawlowski
    6) Hanger
    7) the chocolate statue candidate from Lebanon
    8) Mad Max

  6. JDF says:

    A.) SEPA voters turnout when there is a candidate from SEPA (see Rendell, Edward.)

    B.) The framing that they key issues of the day are choice and “the gays” is more what I would expect from Rush Limbaugh than actual political pundits. It is even more absurd when you what you are basically suggesting is that Western PA Democrats are going to vote against their party for someone like Corbett. He is not popular among his own party let alone Democrats and it is not an issue of ideology nearly so much as competence and likability.

    C.) Schwartz and McCord are both fundraising machines and Wolf can put as much money in play as he needs to. Finances will only be an issue if one of the tier 2 candidates shocks the world.

  7. jjcnpa says:

    Schwartz is the weakest candidate against Corbett. Philly city voters don’t turn out in mid-term elections. The Sandusky factor will temper greatly Corbett’s support in rural PA unless the Dems nominate an ultra-liberal. Wolf may be the best choice with a western PA lt gov candidate.

  8. PAINDY1 says:

    In Which Whitney Tilson and I Find Common Ground
    By dianeravitch
    October 1, 2013 //
    You have never seen the name Whitney Tilson on my blog
    before now. Tilson is a hedge fund manager who is a major supporter
    of KIPP, Teach for America, and Democrats for Education Reform. I
    have heard that he has written unpleasant things about me, like
    calling me a union shill. I avoid mentioning him as I see no value
    in personalizing issues and I try not to become engaged in ad
    hominem exchanges.

    To my surprise, Tilson reached out to let me
    know that he had written
    a devastating critique of the online charter corporation
    called K12. As a financier, he knows more about the business than I
    could ever fathom. He wanted to let me know that we are in accord
    that K12 delivers a poor quality of education.

    I was glad to see a leader of this movement trying to clean out the Augean stables.
    Also, I was gratified by his conciliatory action in writing me.

    We have exchanged a few emails. At some point, we may meet. I have
    never called him any names. Perhaps he will now stop questioning my
    motives and recognize that I write with as much sincerity as he
    does. He knows–perhaps he always knew–that I am financially
    independent and had no reason to sell myself to the unions or
    anyone else.

    I support teachers’ unions, because I believe that
    teachers need a collective voice, just as other groups
    in society do (think: Chamber of Commerce,
    AMA, ABA, DFER, Etc) I support unions, although I have never
    belonged to one, because they protect the rights of working people
    and help poor people enter the middle class. I believe the attacks
    on unions—and their diminishing numbers— have contributed to
    the growing income inequality in this country and the shrinking
    middle class.

    It is good to tone down the rhetoric. But I will not
    waver in my belief that public education, democratically
    controlled, is a pillar of a democratic society.

    Nor will I compromise my conviction that those entering the education
    profession must be well prepared for the hard work of their chosen

    Nor will I abandon my opposition to the widespread
    assumption that test scores are the best and only way–or even an
    accurate way–to measure students, teachers, or schools.

    Nor will I be persuaded that schools alone can end poverty, no matter what
    their scores. Schools are part of the solution, but much more is
    needed, meaning social and economic change. We will see where this
    goes. I appreciate Tilson’s offer to reason together. I am all for
    that. What he wrote about K12 is devastating. Everyone should read

  9. Sam says:

    Two words: Jerry Sandusky. I keep hearing the argument that Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell were unpopular in the middle of their first term but their unpopularity never reached Corbett’s level and neither Governor had a role in the biggest scandal in PA history. Polls show that voters feel Corbett mishandled the Sandusky car as A.G. and still hold that against him.

  10. frank says:

    Lets make jack wagner the democratic nominee that will make coebett governor 4 more years

  11. David Diano says:

    Corbett being the incumbent is what is hurting him the most, because everyone can SEE that he’s doing a terrible job on issue after issue.

    Usually, we only can guess whether someone will be a bad governor. This time we have confirmation.

Comments are closed.