Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf likely has wrapped up his biggest first-term fights with the Legislature’s huge Republican majorities and his record is largely set a year before voters decide whether to give him a second term. He now heads into the 2018 election year with political winds at his back.
Wolf’s polls currently resemble those of former Gov. Ed Rendell’s, the Democrat who won a second term in 2006, rather than former Gov. Tom Corbett’s, the Republican who Wolf beat in 2014 to make the first Pennsylvania governor to lose re-election and the original “one-term Tom.”
“That is a decent spot to be in for an incumbent governor who’s been through lots of fiscal battles the last three years,” said Christopher Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “All in all, you probably take that if you’re Tom Wolf.”
In recent days, eyes increasingly have turned to next year’s election.
The budget battle of 2017 ended, if four months late, and the four-candidate Republican primary field appears set with the entry of House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.
Wolf’s potential adversaries attack him in relatively boilerplate terms: he’s a serial tax hiker, an out-of-touch elitist, and a lousy leader. The state Republican Party calls him “America’s most liberal governor.”
To be sure, Republicans have blocked the vast majority of Wolf’s proposed tax increases, billions of dollars primarily to fix yawning budget deficits, and funding disparities in public schools.
Wolf, 69, was virtually a political novice when he took office in 2015, and his strategy in the Capitol has evolved.
In this year’s budget stalemate, Wolf allied with Senate Republicans against House Republicans. He also agreed to versions of legislation long-sought by Republicans — and long opposed by public-sector labor unions — such as breaking the state’s monopoly on wine and liquor sales.
Those concessions and the drumbeat for a tax increase make Wolf’s record a “mixed bag,” said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, which backed Corbett in the 2014 campaign.
Wolf signed robust medical marijuana legislation — something Corbett opposed — and a package of measures designed to fight Pennsylvania’s opioid-addiction crisis. Meanwhile, his administration has been relatively scandal-free, Pennsylvania’s uninsured rate has fallen to the lowest on record, unemployment is at a post-recession low, and hiring has picked up.
As of September, Pennsylvania had the nation’s 29th fastest 12-month job-growth rate — better than the bottom-10 ranking it racked up over the past three decades.
Wolf faces no Democratic Party challenger in the May 15 primary election, despite complaints from the left’s coalition of labor unions and environmental advocacy organizations about the deals Wolf cut with Republicans.
To some extent, he is forgiven for having little choice with historically large Republican legislative majorities — the biggest since the 1950s — and some in the coalition see 2018 as an existential election if a Republican governor joins those majorities in power.
“It appears highly likely that the choice will be between Gov. Wolf and someone who is highly anti-environmental,” said David Masur, executive director of Philadelphia-based PennEnvironment.
Wolf has not really achieved his major first-term aims to fix Pennsylvania’s long-term finances, raise the minimum wage, or overhaul the state’s tax structure and system of public-school funding.
Allies blame Republican lawmakers, and Wolf has signaled that he will, too.
“Governor Wolf has been fighting to change Harrisburg and move Pennsylvania away from the days of Harrisburg insiders balancing budgets on the backs of children, our schools, and seniors,” his campaign said.
That said, Wolf has gotten almost halfway to his goal of $2 billion education funding increase, as well as Senate passage of a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production.
Next year’s election provides a built-in advantage for Wolf: mid-term elections tend to go poorly for the party of the president, currently Republican Donald Trump.
This month’s sweeping election victories for Democrats across Philadelphia’s heavily populated suburbs is another good sign for Wolf. No prospective opponent of Wolf’s has a household name and Wolf can conveniently campaign against an unpopular Trump and GOP-controlled Congress.
Historically speaking, incumbents in statewide office in Pennsylvania only go down in defeat when swing voters are motivated against them, such as Corbett.
Analysts say they see no similar pattern for Wolf.
“And when you combine that with a potential wind of positive Democratic fortunes in 2018,” Borick said, “you certainly could be optimistic if you’re in his camp.”
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/marc_levy