John Baer: Voters, start placing your bets on governor's race

Posted: July 14, 2010

LOOK, I KNOW it's summer and you've got other stuff on your mind, but you really should start thinking about Pennsylvania's race for governor.

It's this year. It's to pick a successor to His Edness. And its outcome could impact state and national politics for years to come.

I'm not kidding. Not only do we select some poor sucker to wade into the fiscal swamp that is Pennsylvania's budget process, we also pick a political leader capable of influencing the makeup of Congress and the next presidential election.

The redraw of congressional districts, which starts next year, is done by legislation approved by the governor. A sitting, and especially first-term, governor has clout in saying where lines get drawn. That could help shape Congress.

In presidential politics, the candidate of the party of the sitting governor here carried the state in six of the last nine elections. Clearly, a governor can't always deliver; just as clearly, he's an asset.

So it's a big deal.

Yet polling, including a new poll yesterday by Quinnipiac University, suggests voters aren't tuned in or don't much care. This despite the major-party candidates have been running for more than a year, including in contested primaries back in May.

The poll shows 44 percent of voters don't know enough about Republican Tom Corbett to "form an opinion," and a majority, 52 percent, feel the same about Democrat Dan Onorato.

I suggest y'all start forming.

One of these two Pittsburghers runs the state after January and runs right into a no-money-for-nothin' budget cycle with a potential $5 billion deficit. What then?

Corbett, the twice-elected state attorney general, pledges no new taxes, government cost-cutting and reforms in Harrisburg.

He's the guy putting state lawmakers in the slammer. He's also the guy suing to stop President Obama's health care and the guy who recently suggested the unemployed won't look for work as long as they get government benefits for not working. (He since said he really didn't mean that, he just didn't speak clearly.)

Onorato, the twice-elected executive of Allegheny County, promises jobs, government efficiencies and reforms in Harrisburg.

He's called "Rendell Lite." His campaign pitch sounds like Ed's first run, as in "I did good things for Pittsburgh [Philly], so I can do good things for the state." And he hammers Corbett on the unemployment thing as either callous or clueless.

Corbett leads in polls because he's better known, because it's expected to be a Republican year and because it's the GOP's turn in a state that takes turns every eight years.

But yesterday's Quinnipiac Poll spread of seven points - Corbett 44 percent, Onorato 37 percent - isn't huge, and governor's races in open-seat years tend to tighten.

There's little question it's Corbett's to lose. The poll shows him up 15 points among the state's half-million independent voters, always a plus in Pennsylvania. But Onorato leads Corbett overwhelmingly in Philly and by 19 points in their home county, and Democrats outnumber Republicans statewide by 1.2 million.

Point is, this baby's up for grabs, and voters should start paying attention before the onslaught of political ads and horse-race news coverage reduces candidates to caricatures and campaigns to sound bites.

(And, yeah, I know, I'm among the guilty.)

Look at their Web sites - voteonorato.com and tomcorbettforgovernor.com - watch for them on the Pennsylvania Cable Network and think about what either candidate's election means for the state and how that could impact your life.

I'm not suggesting one or the other can better fix the economy or clean up the capital. I'm suggesting they have different styles, experiences and agendas. That the winner likely holds eight years of influence over policy and politics. And that this election is more important than voters seem to think.

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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