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Are Pennsylvania Democrats Too Optimistic?

September 30, 2013

G. Terry Madonna & Michael L.Young

It’s the worst kept secret in state politics.

As Pennsylvania’s 2014 gubernatorial election approaches, GOP incumbent Tom Corbett looms as the weakest incumbent in modern state history. Indeed, many independent national analysts actually consider him the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the nation.

This state of things is not normal politics in the Keystone state. Far from it.

Traditionally, incumbent governors running for reelection have held so many political advantages that defeating them became a hopeless, quixotic quest by the “out” party, be they Democrat or Republican. In fact, the out-party running against incumbent governors usually has had trouble even finding credible challengers. 
 
But not this election.

Instead, state Democrats, inspired by Corbett’s low popularity, are lining up in unprecedented numbers to run against him. The current field of eight announced candidates includes three former cabinet secretaries, a senior congresswoman, the incumbent state treasurer, and an incumbent city mayor.  Additional challengers may yet enter the fray including a former state auditor general.  Not only is it a large field, but a strong one.

These two factors, Corbett’s historically low support together with the strength of the Democrat’s field, convince many observers that the governor’s fate is sealed.  He can’t win in 2014. Republicans should probably just start to line up the moving vans they will need when the voters banish them from Harrisburg.

Maybe, but don’t bet too much on it.

Predicting Corbett’s demise more than a year before election day may turn out to be like the false “reports” of Mark Twain’s death: “greatly exaggerated.”

In point of fact, the past half century of state gubernatorial elections suggests next year’s race is likely to bring its share of surprises. What looks like a gathering Republican train wreck in fall of 2013 could become a close election in the fall of 2014.

There are at least five compelling reasons to draw that conclusion:

●      Pennsylvania gubernatorial incumbents always win and usually win big.Pennsylvania governors have been eligible to seek re-election since Milton Shapp’s first victory in 1970. Since then each incumbent governor has sought reelection and each has succeeded. In 1974, Shapp won by 300,000 votes; Bob Casey in 1990 was re-elected by more than one million; Tom Ridge in 1998 secured his re-election victory by 27 points; and Ed Rendell coasted in 2006 by 21 points. Only Dick Thornburgh in 1982 was challenged seriously and that re-election year coincided with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Even so, Thornburgh won by 100,000 votes.
●      Pennsylvanians overwhelmingly vote against the party of the sitting president.  In 18 of the last 19 gubernatorial elections, they have done exactly that. For Democrats the statistics are equally bleak. When a Democrat has been in the White House (as is the case now) the party has lost 16 of 17 gubernatorial elections back to 1860. If a Democrat does win in 2014 it will be only the second time in 154 years a Democrat has won while the Democratic Party held the White House.
●      Democrats don’t always play nice with each other. It’s likely that the Democratic primary race will turn nasty. Most contested primaries do and this one, given the stakes and expectations, almost certainly will. Well before primary day rolls around voters will be treated to an avalanche of facts, figures and charges impugning the integrity, policy positions and even personal lives of the candidates. This negative advertising will inevitably weaken the eventual nominee in the fall contest. Corbett, with no primary opponent, can watch as the Democrats in this large field proceed to attack each other.
●      Winning the Democratic primary might mean losing the General Election.  In the last decade or so, Democratic voters in the populous eastern part of the state have become more liberal while the state as a whole has remained politically moderate. Consequently the typical 2014 Democratic primary voter will likely be well to the left of the average state voter.  Given the current Democratic field of mostly social liberals—pro-choice on abortion and for gay marriage – it’s plausible that liberal Democratic primary voters might push the ultimate nominee so far to the left that more moderate general election voters will not support them.
●      Money will heavily influence this election.  Cash is king in Pennsylvania statewide elections and any Democrat expecting to replace Corbett will need to raise plenty of it. A hugely expensive media state, Pennsylvania’s 2014 primary will cost a minimum of $5 million to compete, probably twice that to win. And that’s just a start. The Democratic nominee must keep pace with Corbett’s own fundraising, which may reach or exceed $30 million for the general election.  Corbett’s ability to raise campaign cash is a huge advantage to him.

Any one of these factors should give pause to those who believe Corbett can’t win or that Democrats can’t lose. All five factors must be sobering.

No doubt, Corbett is an unusually weak incumbent who can be defeated. But he still is the incumbent and to defeat him the Democratic nominee must demonstrate leadership, articulate vision and offer an alternative set of policies acceptable to voters. Right now that looks easy. The challenge for Democrats is to make sure it still looks easy a year from now.

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Politically Uncorrected™ is published twice monthly, and previous columns can be viewed at http://politics.fandm.edu. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated. This article may be used in whole or part only with appropriate attribution. Copyright © 2013 Terry Madonna and Michael Young.