Wolf vs. Corbett — will it get ugly?
It already has.
In the last two weeks of the primary election campaign, the Pennsylvania State Republican Party sent thousands of hard-hitting direct mail pieces attacking York businessman Tom Wolf, who handily won the Democratic gubernatorial primary last night over three rivals.
“We’ll see an intense campaign,” said Franklin and Marshall College political analyst Stephen Medvic. “I think it’s probably going to be more negative on the (Gov. Tom) Corbett side of things, because he’ll have to convince voters that Wolf is not an acceptable alternative.”
Polls have shown Corbett is one of the nation’s most vulnerable governors seeking re-election.
Wolf told me in an interview before the election that he hoped to avoid going negative in the general election campaign, as he did in the primary when he was attacked in TV ads by two of his opponents, state Treasurer Rob McCord and U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz.
“Gandhi felt that you can’t separate means and ends, that you can’t pretend to serve noble ends by getting there through ignoble means” Wolf said. “And I think that’s true of politics in a democracy.” Wolf added that he wasn’t making “any promises” about the fall campaign. “I don’t know what they’re going to hit me with,” he said.
The Corbett campaign called Wolf’s comments hypocritical, noting in a response that the Wolf campaign has already produced videos attacking Corbett. They’re right — you can find them at the Wolf campaign website.
Gov. Corbett’s team argues that it has a great story to tell — a governor who came in to a fiscally and economically challenged state and kept his promise to reduce unemployment and avoid tax hikes.
But in a blitz of Republican mailings to Democratic voters before the primary, the message was all about Wolf, often showing a hungry canine menacing an innocent sheep.
The first mailing says that “taxes under Tom Wolf were the highest in the state history” and that “during Wolf’s time as revenue secretary unemployment went up almost 50 percent.” These claims refer to the two and a half years Wolf spent as state revenue secretary from January 2006 to November 2008, when he had nothing to do with setting tax rates and the national recession drove the unemployment rate up almost exactly 50 percent.
I asked Republican State Chairman Rob Gleason if it was fair to blame Wolf for this stuff. Sure, he said. Wolf worked for Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, and a governor’s policies have a lot to do with the state’s business climate and job creation. “If there are things that can be talked about as far as the Rendell administration is concerned, he will have to answer for them,” Gleason said.
The second Republican mailing said Wolf “raided the [state] pension fund,” a pretty tortured take on the finances involving the purchase of Wolf’s firm in 2006. The third mailing slammed Wolf for not having women on the board of his company, picking up an attack line from the Schwartz campaign.
Campaigns often begin with pleasant biographical ads, as candidates decide to introduce themselves to voters before going negative on their opponents. In this campaign, both candidates are already pretty well-known, so they can dispense with the niceties if they choose.
A flood of money?
The campaign could attract significant outside money, Medvic said, if the race looks close. The Republican Governors Association, business groups, and organizations associated with the Koch brothers might come into the state with media buys.
“The outside groups are going to step in to help Gov. Corbett if they think they can make a difference,” Medvic said. He said some might come in early to attack Wolf and try to tighten the race.
The most recent head-to-head poll was a Quinnipiac University poll in February that showed Wolf leading Corbett 52 to 33 percent, a 19-point margin. That was after Wolf started his positive ads and before Wolf was attacked by his Democratic rivals and state Republicans.