How to catch Wolf: GOP strategists begin counting ways

A Republican ad tries to characterize Democratic candidate Tom Wolf as a pension-fund raider.
A Republican ad tries to characterize Democratic candidate Tom Wolf as a pension-fund raider.
Posted: May 23, 2014

Even as Tom Wolf was mopping up Tuesday in the Democratic primary, the fall governor's race was already joined.

For the last several weeks, Gov. Corbett's reelection campaign has portrayed Wolf in television ads as a looming tax-and-spend menace, while the Pennsylvania GOP, with direct-mail attack pieces sent to Democrats, worked to poke holes in his rosy story of business success.

Though Corbett is considered vulnerable - polls have shown only about a quarter of voters believe he deserves a second term - political analysts and Republican strategists still say he could win.

In the incumbent's favor: plenty of campaign cash, exploitable questions about Wolf, the unpopularity of the Democratic president, and the typical demographics of midterm electorates, which skew Republican.

"The general election is a whole new ball game," said Colleen Sheehan, a professor of political science at Villanova who was a Republican member of the state House from Montgomery County for a term in the 1990s.

"Wolf won't be able to dominate Corbett financially," Sheehan said. "And what's going to happen when he has to answer questions about Obamacare?"

As of May 5, Wolf had spent $11.4 million and had just $1.6 million left. He pumped $10 million of his own money into the campaign, nearly half in a bank loan, and has said he will not self-fund in the fall.

But Corbett, having spent $5.4 million, still had $6.3 million on hand. And GOP insiders noted that the Republican Governors Association is about to weigh in with some TV advertising money. The party also has a full array of supportive super PACs that could get involved.

Pittsburgh Republican strategist Mark Harris said a reelection campaign is usually a referendum on the incumbent, but a candidate who is down in the polls, like Corbett, needs to make the challenger the issue.

"They need to disqualify Wolf as a credible alternative," Harris said.

Alan Novak, a Republican strategist and former state party chairman from Chester County, said Wolf did not have to move too far left to win the Democratic nomination, but closer scrutiny of his policy proposals in the context of a general election will show he wants to expand government, which Novak said would not play well with a center-right electorate. (At a Wednesday rally in Canonsburg, Corbett said Wolf "wants to grow government.")

"It's not like there's one swing [Corbett] can take," Novak said. "He's going to have to chip away, take the veil off Tom Wolf. The Corbett campaign is going to have to be never-ending."

At the same time, Corbett has been tacking to the center - a crucial move, strategists say, for appealing to moderate voters in the Philadelphia suburbs. For instance: The governor said Wednesday he would not appeal a federal judge's ruling striking down the state ban on same-sex marriage, though he remains personally opposed.

Corbett also will have to energize the GOP base, with conservatives angry at him for a transportation funding plan that hiked vehicle fees and wholesale gasoline taxes, among other things.

Grumbling from that base could be discerned Tuesday. Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley received 26,000 more votes than Corbett, for instance, and even polled better than the governor in Corbett's home county of Allegheny. Cawley is from Bucks.

Republican strategists on Wednesday also noted the unusually high number of write-ins for the governor's race in Centre County, which Corbett won handily in the 2010 election. The numbers, the strategists said, show just how vulnerable he is there after criticism of his handling of the Pennsylvania State University child sexual-abuse scandal.

In that county, just over 8,000 Republican voters turned out to vote Tuesday - and 1,144 of them (or about 14 percent) wrote in a candidate other than Corbett, according to unofficial results. Corbett received 6,877 votes there.

All this could signal a lack of enthusiasm. One Republican goal, as Harris suggested, will be to discourage Democrats and alarm independents by raising questions about Wolf.

One of the latest GOP mailers, for instance, picks up on U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz's primary criticism of Wolf over the number of women in management positions at his building-supplies company. It calls the company's board of directors "Tom Wolf's Millionaire Boys Club."

That's a good bit of political jujitsu on behalf of a governor accused of insensitivity in 2012 when he said of a proposal to make women view ultrasounds before abortions: "You just have to close your eyes."

Another of the mailers blames Wolf for losses in the state pension system because it invested in a private equity fund that bought his business from him in 2006 in a leveraged deal.

When the recession hit, the debt-laden Wolf Organization closed lumberyards, laying off a few hundred workers. Wolf bought the company back in 2009 and stabilized it, but the criticism is a smudge on his image as a "different" kind of businessman who cares about his workers.

Charlie Gerow, a GOP strategist in Harrisburg, noted that Wolf had paid an effective federal tax rate of 7 percent in a recent year, according to returns he released.

"Democrats crucified Mitt Romney for that," Gerow said. "There's a soft underbelly of the Tom Wolf campaign. He's going to have a hard time running away from questions about his business and financial dealings."

Then again, Wolf's primary win was wide and deep. He carried all 67 counties, including Philadelphia and Montgomery, the home bases of Schwartz and Treasurer Rob McCord, two of his opponents for the nomination.

By contrast, Ed Rendell won just nine counties when he defeated Robert P. Casey Jr., now a U.S. senator, in the 2002 Democratic primary that sent him on his way to becoming a two-term governor.

Will Wolf be able to get voters to the polls in November? Pennsylvania is trending blue, but Democratic-leaning voters turn out in higher numbers in presidential years. Midterm elections like the one in November usually draw older, and whiter, voters to the polls. Advantage: GOP.


tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

215-854-2718

@tomfitzgerald

www.inquirer.com/bigtent

Inquirer staff writer Angela Couloumbis contributed to this article.

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