Money talks for guv wannabes

KEITH SRAKOCIC / ASSOCIATED PRESS Gov. Corbett after voting in yesterday's primaries. He's known for pulling in big donations, but his opponent has his own money.
KEITH SRAKOCIC / ASSOCIATED PRESS Gov. Corbett after voting in yesterday's primaries. He's known for pulling in big donations, but his opponent has his own money.
Posted: May 22, 2014

THE NOVEMBER election for governor will give Pennsylvania voters a real choice.

They can elect the man with a lot of money.

Or they can elect the man who's very popular with other rich people.

The 2014 contest between newly minted Democratic nominee Tom Wolf - a once-obscure businessman who used $10 million of his own money to buy instant name ID - and GOP incumbent Gov. Corbett, who's adept at wooing big-ticket donations from energy executives and other business leaders, is already the exclamation point on that "big money is way too big in Pennsylvania" politics.

Indeed, experts say that when all the costs are tallied, this year's gubernatorial race is all but certain to shatter the previous spending records set in 2002 - the year Ed Rendell used his Rolodex of wealthy contacts in Philadelphia and as former chairman of the Democratic National Committee to raise more than $40 million, upset now-U.S. Sen. Bob Casey in a hotly contested primary, and win the general election.

In January and February when no one else was paying attention, Wolf - who served briefly as Rendell's revenue commissioner - spent $1 million a week on warm-and-fuzzy TV ads, building such a large edge in the polls that five Democrats dropped out before a single vote was cast.

"This basically has been a race about TV," said Terry Madonna, the Franklin & Marshall College political scientist and pollster, who had Wolf at about 3 percent or 4 percent in surveys before the York-based kitchen-cabinet manufacturer pulled out his $10 million bankroll.

Of course, it takes a lot of money to buy airtime and win a marquee election anywhere in America these days, but Pennsylvania is a special case - one of just 11 states with absolutely no limit on how much a determined donor can give. That's a steep contrast from neighboring states such as New Jersey - where an individual can give just $7,600 to a candidate for governor in one election cycle.

Self-funding by wealthy candidates like Wolf was allowed in a 1976 Supreme Court ruling that labeled such spending as free speech. But one little-discussed aspect of Wolf's primary victory is how he augmented his own donation by tapping into a small cadre of wealthy friends and business associates from York, who took full advantage of Pennsylvania's lack of limits.

Wolf received the largest outside donation of any candidate, at least $1.15 million from Thomas Grumbacher of York-based Bon-Ton department stores (Wolf served on the company's board) - and he also got $475,000 from Louis Appell Jr., owner of the now-defunct Susquehanna Pfaltzgraff conglomerate, $450,000 from family member William Wolf and $300,000 from retired former business associate Bill Zimmerman of Maine.

But it is Corbett, whose pro-business and pro-drilling policies appeal to many conservative donors, who had raised the most contributions of more than $25,000 coming into the election year - according to in-depth analysis in February done by WHYY. His largest donor so far in this cycle is prominent Bryn Mawr philanthropist and former fund manager John Templeton, who has given $420,000.

But now that the nominees are locked in, the money game should change. As the anointed Democrat, Wolf will have the ability to tap into the law firms, contractors and labor unions that traditionally finance the party but were on the sidelines this winter. His latest filing of last-minute donations showed, for example, $10,118 from Ballard Spahr, the Philadelphia firm that launched Comcast bigwig David L. Cohen and has been home to Rendell.

Corbett, meanwhile, is sure to continue to tap into the large network of donors he's accumulated in the past decade. On May 8, the governor received $50,000 from the political-action committee of Penn Strategies, the lobbying firm founded by businessman John Moran Jr., who controversially took the governor and his wife on a 2011 Rhode Island yacht vacation.

And the only thing that's certain between now and November is that the money flood is not going to abate.

Barry Kauffman, the Pennsylvania leader of the good-government group Common Cause, said his group supports stalled legislation in Harrisburg that would place limits on big money contributions and slow corporate dollars from finding their way into Pennsylvania politics. Such reforms, he said, are needed to "protect our government from the abuse of unlimited campaign contributions and make elections fair again."

On Twitter: @Will_Bunch


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