Corbett complicates his own reelection campaign

Posted: January 15, 2013

Gov. Corbett, already saddled with mediocre polling numbers, is now navigating self-imposed political turbulence that could complicate his efforts to establish solid footing in advance of his 2014 reelection campaign.

Corbett has been pounded from all sides for his decision to sue the NCAA over sanctions imposed on Pennsylvania State University football from the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal, reversing his previous public support for the penalties. And he has angered many in the legislature, including fellow Republicans, by awarding, with little consultation, a lottery-management contract to a British firm.

The governor's political advisers and supporters fret that his reelection chances are "threatened," as one said, by public approval ratings hovering around 40 percent in recent polls - dangerous territory for any incumbent. Yet they also know that the election is 22 months away, plenty of time for a reversal of fortune.

"The long and short of it is that 2013 will be defined for Gov. Corbett by his legislative agenda," said Charlie Gerow, a longtime Republican consultant in Harrisburg. "Successes with the legislature will give him a big leg up."

He has an ambitious punch list: privatizing the state liquor stores, which has touched off a war with the union representing the clerks; proposing a transportation spending package to repair roads and bridges; and tackling the costs of public-employee pensions, which consume a growing portion of the state budget. This, too, is a union minefield.

It's an open question whether the lottery-privatization scheme has alienated potential allies in the legislature enough to complicate achieving that agenda. All three of the major items are broadly popular, if difficult politically to achieve.

The lottery plan seemed to come up suddenly and to inspire opposition and criticism regardless of its possible merits.

Corbett "fails to recognize that politics is all about building consensus," said a knowledgeable political source, a Republican. "Once he thinks he's made the right choice - and this could be his prosecutor's background - he'll fight for what he believes. This is an example of poor communications. It was totally unnecessary. By working with the state legislature, he could have eventually gotten his way."

The governor himself, as well as advisers, have acknowledged that he could do a better job of selling his policies and that relations with the media have been rocky. Corbett has recently embarked on a series of one-on-one meetings with prominent journalists and visits to newspaper editorial boards.

A survey released last week by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-leaning firm from North Carolina, found that 52 percent of the state's electorate disapproved of Corbett's overall job performance, with 38 percent saying they approved of his record in office. At the same time, 52 percent approved of the suit against the NCAA, the poll said.

In Quinnipiac University's Nov. 15 poll, Corbett had a 40 percent approval rating among registered voters and a 38 percent disapproval rating. He was doing better among men (42 percent to 38 percent positive) than among women (37 percent approving and 37 percent disapproving). Republicans approved of Corbett's performance by 61 percent to 16 percent, while independent voters were evenly split at 37 percent, and Democrats disapproved of him by 54 percent to 26 percent.

But a powerful trend is working in Corbett's favor. Ever since the state constitution was changed in 1968 to allow governors to have a second term, five men have tried it - and all have succeeded.

G. Terry Madonna, the Franklin and Marshall College political scientist and pollster, said that all except for Gov. Dick Thornburgh, a Republican, had poor approval ratings in their first full years in office. Thornburgh was hugely popular because of his handling of the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis; the 1982 recession made his path to reelection difficult.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, had an approval rating of about 35 percent in F&M polling in 2005, right after he signed off on an unpopular pay raise for lawmakers and other state officials. Yet Rendell won reelection in 2006 in a landslide.

"You have to consider things like the overall political environment, the state of the campaigns, overall progress in the economy," Madonna said in an interview.

The economy is improving gradually, and Corbett could benefit from the traditional "six-year itch," the tendency for voters to side with the opposition party in the first off-year election of a president's second term, Madonna said.

"Before we drive a stake in Gov. Corbett," Madonna said, "we should keep in mind how much can change."

Contact Thomas Fitzgerald

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