Since 1968, when Pennsylvania started allowing its governors to run for re-election, voters have returned every sitting governor for a second term.
This streak may be about to end.
Polls show Democrat Tom Wolf leading the incumbent, Republican Tom Corbett, by around 15 percentage points.
How did Corbett pull off this feat, persuading the state’s voters to ponder such an historic act of rejection?
Here’s a list of five factors:
1) The Sandusky Scandal
The horrific child abuse by the former Penn State assistant football coach has cut Corbett in two ways. People upset that Jerry Sandusky’s crimes took so long to be stopped blame Corbett’s performance as attorney general. But Penn State loyalists are furious at Corbett because they feel, in his role as university trustee, he threw the sainted Joe Paterno under the bus. Soon after the trustees fired Joe Pa, he died. Rare is the controversy that leads people on each side of the divide to be equally irked with the same person.
2) Flunking Business 101
Philosophically, Corbett belongs to the “let’s run government like a business” camp. Well, a first premise of business is that when you have leverage, you exploit it.
As recently as an interview in WHYY’s studio on Friday, the governor has kept on insisting that levying any more taxes on Marcellus Shale drillers would have chased them away. How, governor, how? The natural gas bonanza sits underneath your state, not Iowa. The drillers … were … not … going … anywhere.
When it came to the shale, Corbett had all the leverage a governor could want. But, in thrall to American Enterprise Institute boilerplate about the evils of corporate taxation, he squandered it.
3) Weaker schools
Corbett’s term has featured massive disinvestment in public education. Yes, as his supporters say, the basic state subsidy to schools has risen on his watch, but it has not kept pace with rising costs.
Meanwhile, other aid programs – including a charter reimbursement payment vital to Philadelphia – have been scrapped.
No doubt the man arrived in office in the midst of tough fiscal times, with the global recession blowing a hole in the state budget.
But Corbett was rare among governors in being blessed with a potentially healing windfall: shale revenues. Unwilling to seize it, he chose instead to let school budgets shrink. All across the state, unhappy school parents feel the effects and lament this missed opportunity.
4) Foxes in the henhouse
The governor filled many key cabinet and regulatory posts – including environmental protection – with emissaries from the business sectors. Since Day One, their brief seems to have been to serve as concierges for business interests, helping them navigate around pesky regulations. As former U.S House Majority Leader Eric Cantor learned in his recent congressional loss, even some very conservative voters are getting tired of seeing their interests take a back seat to Wall Street’s.
5) The indifferent leader
When you meet him, Corbett seems pleasant and personable. But he has little gift for political stagecraft and little taste for some core challenges of his office, like getting the four squabbling caucuses of the legislature to agree on anything. It’s hard to argue, in general terms, with his choice of two big agenda items to push – pension reform and getting rid of state liquor stores. But his pushing has not amounted to much action.
Before his interviews at WHYY Friday, the governor eagerly and winningly showed off photos of his young grandchildren.
He seemed like a man secretly looking forward to spending more time with those kids pretty soon.