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Corbett’s chances at holding Pa. governor job tied to GOP nest egg

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Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is the incumbent most at risk among 22 governorships Republicans must defend on ballots this fall, many analysts agree.
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Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report

HARRISBURG — As he works to shore up his GOP base, Gov. Tom Corbett needs to improve polling numbers to keep money flowing from the Republican Governors Association, a group that is flush with cash, and other big donors, national analysts say.

Corbett remains the incumbent most at risk among 22 governorships Republicans must defend on ballots this fall, many analysts agree. In one of his latest ads, Corbett took a punch at the Democrats’ nominee, millionaire businessman Tom Wolf of York County, accusing him of advocating an array of taxes.

Wolf has led Corbett, of Shaler, by more than 20 points in recent statewide polls.

Negative political ads are a reasonable strategy for the governor, analysts said.

“You have to offer hope to donors,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of the Crystal Ball, a website of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “For an incumbent, his numbers are dreadful.”

Though political strategists differ on Corbett’s chances of winning re-election, most agree that money from the Republican Governors Association is key to a comeback scenario. With a record $70.3 million on hand, the group commands attention; its Pennsylvania Political Action Committee has notified the Department of State that it has $8.9 million available to spend. In 2010, the association gave Corbett $6 million, his largest contribution.

“We are all-in to support him,” said Jon Thompson, spokesman for the association headed by Gov. Chris Christie in neighboring New Jersey who, like Corbett, is a former federal prosecutor. The association gave Corbett $1.6 million in April and about $210,000 last year.

Yet with races in several states that analysts consider to be “toss-ups” — and some “leaning Democrat,” such as Maine, where GOP Gov. Paul LePage faces a tough challenge, Kondik said — the association might whittle its choices.

The association could abandon Pennsylvania if it no longer believes there’s “a path to victory,” said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report.

Duffy considers Corbett the most vulnerable incumbent “in either party,” but she said the Pennsylvania race is a toss-up and not a seat leaning to Wolf.

“He’s an incumbent, and incumbents have a crazy way of bouncing back,” said Duffy, though she’ll take stock of the race again around Labor Day.

If his polling numbers don’t improve by early October, despite the RGA’s pronouncements for Corbett, “you won’t see money coming in,” said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester.

Wolf self-funded most of his primary campaign against three opponents who finished the race: Treasurer Rob McCord, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and former state environmental regulator Katie McGinty, who now heads a Wolf campaign committee. A political action committee of the Democratic Governors Association gave Wolf’s campaign $225,000 after the May election.

“Tom Corbett’s billion-dollar cut from Pennsylvania’s public schools has resulted in larger class sizes, thousands of teacher layoffs and higher property taxes for middle-class families, which is why defeating him and electing Tom Wolf is a top priority for the (Democratic Governors Association),” said Danny Kanner, its communications director. Kanner would not say how much the group will donate.

Corbett disputes the characterization of a $1 billion cut in education money, saying he didn’t replace federal stimulus dollars that expired when he proposed the 2011-12 budget.

Changing the narrative is crucial to Corbett’s race so that he can win back his base support, said pollster G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. That’s why he’s trying to steer voters away from the Democrats’ message about education funding and his decision not to tax Marcellus shale-gas producers to one that emphasizes the cost of public pensions to taxpayers, Madonna said.

Madonna predicts business groups will rally support for Corbett and that both candidates “will raise enough to be competitive.”

Corbett, through campaign communications director Chris Pack, has blasted Wolf for denying a pension crisis and not supporting reform. Corbett is pushing lawmakers to act on pensions because the state has a nearly $50 billion unfunded liability, but the House plan that Corbett supports isn’t true reform, said Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, sponsor of Act 120 of 2010.

That law, approved with bipartisan support, raised the retirement age to 65, increased the vesting period from five to 10 years, and reduced multipliers for computing state pensions, Evans said. Wolf has said he wants to give the law time to work.

The Corbett campaign’s contention hat Wolf is beholden to public sector unions because they gave his campaign $1 million is absurd, Evans said.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media’s state Capitol reporter. Reach him at [email protected].

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