Guv primary took unexpected twist

Posted: May 20, 2014

THE PRIMARY for governor that ends tomorrow has been a mix of what we're used to and what we're not.

It suggests evidence of political change, yet underscores political truisms.

The first truism, of course, is money matters.

Tom Wolf's $10 million put him where he stands today, which is poised to win the four-way Democratic race.

But like other self-evident truths, this one carries a caveat: Money alone doesn't always do it.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics has a decade's worth of data showing that among more than 6,000 self-funding candidates, only 11 percent won the offices they sought.

Yet Wolf's cash created an image - a likable, small-town millionaire sharing profits with employees, giving back to his community, serving in a state cabinet while forgoing salary and perks - that appealed to voters fed up with cookie-cutter sameness.

Most important, this image got seared into public consciousness during weeks of uncontested TV seen by voters homebound by the worst winter in decades.

Another truism: Timing is everything.

This truism got an assist by what can fairly be called (assuming Wolf, as expected, wins) fatal errors in other campaigns.

Neither former front-runner Allyson Schwartz nor state Treasurer Rob McCord saw the need or was willing to spend resources to halt or slow Wolf's ascension.

In a Harper Poll last November, Wolf was last at 5 percent. In a Harper Poll last week, Wolf was first at 50 percent.

The Schwartz campaign believed Schwartz's 23 years in elective office with a strong base in the Philly market made her the best-known woman in Pennsylvania politics and provided a path to victory.

It then proceeded to hit "pause" and spend too much money on staff and advisers while insisting it would come on strong "when voters started paying attention" - a critical misread of Wolf's early TV impact.

McCord's camp thought the fact that he twice was elected statewide and came with lots of union support would, as in decades past, be the formula for a primary win.

But nobody running was known statewide. And Schwartz and McCord waited way too long to try to get that recognition and to take on Wolf.

There were tough questions about Wolf's cabinet-supply company and his association with a former York mayor who was charged (later acquitted) in a race-based murder case.

McCord pressed the latter so hard it backfired, incinerating his own chances.

And by the time McCord and Schwartz aired ads hitting Wolf on these questions, they were seen less as legitimate issues and more as desperate politics.

Meanwhile, underfunded Katie McGinty, whose plan was to avoid any firestorm involving Schwartz, McCord and Wolf, never got the chance to slip through the field as the classy, positive alternative to politics as usual.

Because Wolf never went after other candidates, choosing only to defend himself, McGinty's opportunity to be the sole adult in the room never arose.

As to electoral change, the race suggests a few things.

Campaign adages such as early TV doesn't matter and the real keys to winning primaries are party backing, union endorsements and orchestrated ground games today look like conventional wisdom no longer wise.

The question is whether this election is an anomaly driven by Wolf's unique personal story and demeanor, or a road map for future candidates.

One thing is certain.

The rare run of four capable contenders split regular campaign donors and supporters in a way that greatly aided an unknown self-funder.

A two-person contest could have been very different, or at least much tighter than polls indicate.

This is not to detract from Wolf's campaign. It was smart and agile, and Wolf's calm conduct and steady performance throughout was its strongest asset.

That and, of course, his money.


Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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