Corbett wages reelection fight with historically low poll numbers

Gov. Corbett has won difficult elections in the past. Poll numbers and voter-registration data suggest that his bid for a second term as governor will also not be easy.
Gov. Corbett has won difficult elections in the past. Poll numbers and voter-registration data suggest that his bid for a second term as governor will also not be easy. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 11, 2013

HARRISBURG - With his announcement last week that he would run for reelection, Gov. Corbett stepped into politically uncharted territory.

Never in modern Pennsylvania history has an incumbent governor hobbled by such low job-approval ratings asked the public for another term.

Yet Corbett is doing just that, even as his Republican Party vacillates between cautious optimism and outright panic over his chances of staging what pundits say would be one of the biggest political comebacks in the state's history.

Within the governor's campaign, the answer is crisp and consistent: It's still early. There is a year between now and the election. Corbett has a story to tell. When he tells it, they say, the public will respond.

"Tom Corbett has not been very good at being the show horse. He's always been the workhorse," said Chester County GOP Chairman Val DiGiorgio, who helped host a campaign stop Friday in West Chester. "We told him he has to go out and brag more. And he's doing it. I think he's focused and passionate and energized. That will make a big difference."

Big enough to win?

The numbers are sobering. Democratic voter registration in the state outpaces Republican registration by just over one million, according to state election data. That puts Corbett at a numerical disadvantage that will only be compounded if his Democratic challenger - likely to come from a field that already has eight entrants - can galvanize party voters on Election Day.

Then there are the polls. A Franklin and Marshall College survey released last month found that only 20 percent of 628 registered voters said they believed he deserved reelection.

Political analyst and pollster G. Terry Madonna, who conducted the poll, said the last statewide official seeking reelection in the face of low job approval ratings was U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter - and his numbers were not as low as Corbett's. Though Specter's political narrative was different - he switched from Republican to Democrat in the hope of salvaging his reelection bid - his job approval ratings hovered at 30 percent just months before the 2010 Democratic primary. Specter lost.

Before Specter, onetime Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum suffered from low job-approval ratings when he sought a third term. He also lost.

Madonna stopped short of saying Corbett will win or lose: "No one knows for sure because no one has ever been in this position."

The governor does have history on his side. Since Pennsylvania governors were allowed to serve two consecutive terms starting in 1972, none has lost a reelection bid.

And Corbett has won difficult elections. Several supporters point to his landslide victory for a second term as attorney general in 2008 - the year Democrats swarmed the polls to elect Barack Obama president. In 2010, when he first ran for governor, he won handily, though polls predicted a closer race.

"He has shown he can pull it out," said state GOP chairman Rob Gleason, who denied rumors that the party had tried to persuade Corbett to step aside for another Republican. "I am not worried."

Gleason and other party officials acknowledged Corbett's poll numbers are poor, but say they will improve once his campaign begins spending money to get his message out. Gleason says he expects the governor will spend at least $40 million on his reelection, mostly for advertising. Corbett spent $25.5 million to win in 2010.

"I truly believe the problem is that the message has not gone out about how truly difficult a job he had when he came into office, and how effectively he handled it," said Jack Barbour, cochairman of Corbett's campaign.

Still, the ever-growing field of Democrats seeking to challenge him has already started firing salvos against his policies and politics. And Corbett has not helped himself. He can be stiff in public, and has been prone to headline-grabbing gaffes, including his September remark that same-sex marriage is no different under state law from marriage between a brother and a sister.

One point most everyone agrees on: Philadelphia's vote-rich suburban counties will play a critical role. When he ran in 2010, Corbett won handily in Bucks and Chester Counties and did well in Montgomery and Delaware Counties. He will have to repeat the performance.

Yet to win there, Corbett will have to overcome - or at least shift attention away from - the nearly $1 billion cut to public schools he made his first year in office. Already, the governor has come out forcefully on that front, arguing during his reelection swing last week in Pittsburgh, Luzerne County, and Philadelphia and its suburbs that he did not cut funding for public schools and that the pain many school districts felt came from temporary federal stimulus funding expiring.

"Let's talk about the facts," Corbett said last week after launching his "Promises Kept" reelection campaign. "The federal government reduced the money. And we used the federal money where we shouldn't have."

Then there is the "Sandusky factor": how the governor, when he was attorney general, handled the investigation into Jerry Sandusky and the Pennsylvania State University child sexual-abuse scandal. The current attorney general, Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, has launched an investigation into Corbett's handling of the case.

"I did my job," Corbett said, countering criticisms that he may have slow-walked the explosive investigation, which began in 2009, because he was planning on running for governor. "And the people of Pennsylvania are going to vote on whether I did my job. I can't say anything more than that."

He added: "If you are governing by polls, you are not governing."

717-787-5934 @AngelasInk

comments powered by Disqus