Voters can expect a history-making election Tuesday, whether Republican Gov. Tom Corbett defies the odds and secures a come-from-behind victory or Democratic nominee Tom Wolf becomes the first candidate to oust a Pennsylvania governor seeking re-election.
The race matched Corbett, 65, a former state attorney general from Shaler, against Wolf, 65, a York County millionaire with a family-owned cabinet-making business.
Personalities more than issues have marked the contest, in which Wolf’s folksy early TV ads helped propel him to victory in a four-way primary race. The gubernatorial race, among the most expensive in state history, ultimately might be a referendum on Corbett, analysts said.
“Governor Corbett has to pull a rabbit out of the hat the last few days,” said David Thornburgh, executive director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania and the son of former Gov. Dick Thornburgh.
Thornburgh noted that polls show a varying lead by Wolf, but “you see the polls all running in the same direction.”
If Corbett loses, he would be the first incumbent to be defeated since Pennsylvania allowed governors to seek second terms under the 1968 Constitution. The late Milton Shapp, elected in 1970 and 1974, was the first governor to win a second term.
Thornburgh and other analysts cannot recall any gubernatorial candidate in recent history winning a race when trailing in polls by double digits or slightly less in the campaign’s final days.
Yet a Corbett comeback is not out of the question, especially if voter turnout is abysmal in the Democratic strongholds of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and Republicans “come home” for Corbett in huge numbers, said Michael Cassidy, an instructor at Temple University’s Harrisburg campus who worked for 36 years for the House Democratic Caucus.
But such a feat is unlikely: Corbett’s favorability ratings were low throughout his first term, even among members of his party. He appeared aloof and was unable to persuade a GOP-majority Legislature to support his agenda. Teachers and parents decried the loss of public education money in his first budget, and environmentalists accused him of being too friendly with shale gas drillers because he did not support an extraction tax.
Some conservatives said Corbett was not conservative enough.
“The election has been about Corbett,” Cassidy said.
On paper, Wolf is the textbook candidate to defeat Corbett, and that’s part of his appeal, Cassidy said.
“He’s a businessman; he’s competent. He was state Revenue secretary. He was also a clean candidate without a lot of baggage,” he said. To some Republicans, “he’s not scary.”
Republican voters likely will be divided — some voting for Corbett, some staying home, and some choosing Wolf, said Adam McGlynn, a political science professor at East Stroudsburg University.
“It’s really hard to win when your own party isn’t backing you,” McGlynn said.
Voters appear to be backing Wolf in large part because of dissatisfaction with Corbett’s tenure. Education funding, teacher layoffs and lingering state fiscal problems are among the major issues, McGlynn said.
Still, he said, “I don’t think you’ll see Republicans voting in droves for Wolf.”
Turnout is key for Democrats, McGlynn said — something Wolf acknowledged during an October visit with Tribune-Review reporters and editors. His campaign held high-profile “get-out-the-vote” rallies with first lady Michelle Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton. President Obama is expected to appear with Wolf on Sunday in Philadelphia.
With about 4 million registered Democrats in Pennsylvania, the party has an edge of more than 1 million voters over Republicans.
McGlynn said it would take torrential rain — or even snow — to keep Democratic voters away from the polls in Philadelphia in numbers that could help Corbett win.
Allegheny County’s Elections Division expects an overall voter turnout of 45 percent, compared with 47 percent in 2010.
Westmoreland County is part of the state’s typical Republican base, which stretches through central and northern portions of the state.
National political strategists this year ranked Corbett as one of the nation’s most vulnerable governors.
Michele DeMary, a professor of political science at Susquehanna University, said a Wolf victory might be a “superficial win,” given Corbett’s unpopularity.
Corbett often came off as the prosecutor he was from 2004 to 2010, “where you don’t have to work with people as much as dictate to people,” DeMary said.
At one point, eight Democrats lined up to challenge Corbett during the primary, though their numbers were whittled to four by May.
Robert Jubelirer, the former Senate president, said Wolf’s television ad that debuted Jan. 30 was the “best introductory political ad I’ve seen.”
“Nobody knew who Tom Wolf was,” said Jubelirer, a longtime fixture in Republican leadership. “It was warm. It had credibility. You could see his family was close-knit and really believed he’d be a good governor.”
Wolf won the primary with a 67-county sweep — similar to Corbett’s sweep of 63 counties in the 2010 election.
Thereafter, Wolf held a double-digit lead in public opinion polls, as wide as 25 points in August, according to data from the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
Wolf’s advertising strategy boosted the race’s expense. From 2013 through Oct. 20, Wolf raised about $31.8 million, including $10 million of his own money that he invested in his primary run.
Corbett raised more than $24.8 million in monetary and in-kind contributions.
Wolf spent the primary and general election campaigns talking about Corbett’s education funding policies. He pledged to enact a 5 percent severance tax on natural gas extraction.
Corbett opposed a tax on gas drillers but pushed through an impact fee that largely benefits host communities.
Sensing Wolf as a frontrunner, Corbett’s campaign aired an anti-Wolf ad during the primary season, though Corbett ran unopposed. Since then, Corbett has touted his record of keeping taxes low and cutting state spending, and blasted Wolf’s proposal to raise the personal income tax rate on higher earners.
It appears that Republican Party attempts “to tie (Wolf) into Obama haven’t been sticking,” Thornburgh said.
The GOP also portrayed Wolf as a protégé of former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, for whom he worked as a Cabinet member.
In the final days of the race, both campaigns pushed turnout, holding rallies, making automated phone calls and sending thousands of volunteers to knock on doors. As of Thursday, each had about $3 million for late-stage efforts.
Bob Bozzuto, executive director of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, said the GOP pushed the “Tom Wolf tax increase” message to Democrats and independents.
“We’ve put a huge emphasis on talking to individual donors, no matter where they live, and knowing what’s important to them,” Bozzuto said.
In the final month, Corbett’s polling numbers began to close the gap behind Wolf, and greater numbers of Republicans said they intended to vote for Corbett.
“It’s a product of our voters looking at the choice in the election and Governor Corbett speaking to what they want,” Bozzuto said.