Corbett struggles to energize the base

Gubernatorial rivals Tom Wolf (left) and Tom Corbett in Philadelphia. While analysts say the Democrat Wolf might not win over conservatives, some on the right may choose to stay home.
Gubernatorial rivals Tom Wolf (left) and Tom Corbett in Philadelphia. While analysts say the Democrat Wolf might not win over conservatives, some on the right may choose to stay home. (MATTHEW HALL / Staff Photographer)

For now, conservatives not happy, and actions aren't winning over moderates.

Posted: July 21, 2014

Four years ago, Joe Szalwinski knocked on doors and "passed out more fliers than I can count" to help elect Tom Corbett governor of Pennsylvania.

This year? "I'll probably vote for him, but I won't work for him," said Szalwinski, 58, a tea party voter from Fishtown.

He was disappointed that Corbett had abandoned the legal fight after a federal judge threw out the state's ban on same-sex marriage, and by the governor's willingness last year to put extra money into Philadelphia schools.

"Maybe he doesn't have a backbone," Szalwinski said Friday.

Political strategists and conservative activists alike say Corbett is struggling to energize the conservative base that swept the Republican into office in 2010, with disappointment on the right a major reason the governor trails Democrat Tom Wolf by about 20 percentage points.

One poll even shows Wolf running well in two groups that lean right: gun owners and evangelicals.

"It's one thing after another," said Ryan Shafik, a GOP strategist from the Harrisburg area who handles conservative candidates. "The only thing he really twisted arms for, really pushed, was the transportation bill that brought the largest gas-tax increase in state history."

Some conservatives are mad at Corbett for that, saying he broke his no-new-taxes pledge. Others are most upset about the marriage issue, and some are frustrated that the governor decided to stop defending in court the state's voter ID law - a conservative priority that Corbett had championed.

The governor has said that it made no sense to continue with unwinnable cases and that he remains morally opposed to same-sex marriage.

Activists also mention what they might call Corbett's sins of omission: his inability to get liquor privatization or reductions in public-employee pension benefits through the legislature, or to pass proposed legislation allowing members of the state workers' and teachers' unions to opt out of paying dues.

Such grumbling might make little difference if Corbett's moderating moves had won him enough support among moderate Republicans in Southeastern Pennsylvania and independent voters. Yet anywhere from a quarter to a third of self-identified Republicans in recent polls have said they don't believe Corbett deserves a second term.

"He's not winning over moderates, who are unhappy he's pushed an agenda they don't like - and he hasn't delivered on much of the conservative agenda," said pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College. "He's got a huge uphill climb."

A poll conducted by Franklin and Marshall in late June suggested how steep the path could be.

It found Wolf with a nominal lead among respondents who said they were born-again or fundamentalist Christians - a key part of the conservative coalition - by 34 percent to 32, with 33 percent undecided.

"I have done a lot of races in a lot of states," Shafik, the strategist, said. "I've never seen a Republican losing evangelicals."

The poll of 502 voters also had Corbett trailing among gun owners, with 41 percent saying they would back Wolf to 34 percent for the incumbent. Twenty-four percent were undecided.

(The poll's overall margin of error was plus or minus 4.4 percentage points, with higher margins in voter subgroups.)

Kim Stolfer, president of Firearms Owners Against Crime, based in Western Pennsylvania, said many activists do not realize that Wolf supports a ban on assault weapons and other gun-control measures.

"Every gun owner I've talked to about it switches their position when I tell them," Stolfer said. "We have a huge job of education ahead of us."

The group and its allies favor a proposal that would give gun owners standing to challenge municipal gun regulations in court, as well as a bill to end the state's dual system of gun-buyer background checks, by the state police and the federal government. Gun-control advocates say that system provides an extra layer of protection.

Still, most analysts doubt conservatives will move  en masse to Wolf. The real danger for Corbett, they said, is that some might stay home Nov. 4.

"There's a passion and enthusiasm gap - that's obvious," said GOP strategist Jeff Coleman, who has strong ties to social and religious conservatives.

"Conservatives who are pro-life and oppose new definitions of marriage will vote for Gov. Corbett, but there is no sense right now that they'll fill the cars to go to the polls on Election Day," Coleman said. "They're not necessarily going to be doing phone banks and door hangers."

Don Adams, president of the Independence Hall Tea Party PAC, which is based in the Philadelphia area, predicted conservative voters will "come home" to Corbett, but that the extent of the movement might "depend on how threatening they think Tom Wolf is."

Not all conservatives fault Corbett for the gas-tax increase, believing that the state badly needed to overhaul crumbling roads and bridges.

"I depart from conservative orthodoxy on that issue because I think infrastructure is a core function of government," said Colin Hanna, a former Chester County commissioner who heads Let Freedom Ring, an activist group that works on social and fiscal issues.

He said Corbett also deserved credit for taking on the pension issue and for cobbling together four budgets without any broad-based tax increases as the state struggles to recover from the recession.

"There's a sense that he has been more timid on some issues than many conservatives would like," Hanna said, "but he's been a good steward."

215-854-2718 @tomfitzgerald

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