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Pennsylvania Dems Search For Right Candidate To Challenge Vulnerable Corbett

January 21, 2013

 

Midway through his first term, Pennsylvania Republican Gov. Tom Corbett appears vulnerable, and Democrats are hoping to make him the first one-term chief executive since the state's governors became eligible for second terms in 1970. While numerous Democrats reportedly are considering bids, only former Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger has launched a campaign. Sen. Bob Casey, who would have been a prohibitive favorite in a Democratic primary, has denied interest in the race. The party's lack of an obvious challenger to Corbett has some Democrats worried that 2014 could prove to be a missed opportunity.

A confluence of factors has rendered Corbett an inviting target for opponents. Democrats cite cuts in funding for education and social services made during his first two years in office, but Corbett's biggest vulnerability may stem from his performance in his previous job. He faces ongoing criticism for his handling of the Penn State sex abuse case during his tenure as the state's attorney general. Philadelphia Democratic consultant Larry Ceisler said Corbett is "not vulnerable because of his record as governor, ironically. ... He's vulnerable due to his last two years as attorney general." Newly sworn-in Attorney General Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, has promised an investigation into Corbett's handling of the case, and her findings could impact Corbett's reelection hopes. Earlier this month, Corbett filed a lawsuit against the NCAA challenging the organization's sanctions against Penn State.

Corbett's polling numbers reflect his vulnerability heading into his reelection fight. In Quinnipiac University's most recent Pennsylvania poll, conducted in mid-November, 40 percent of Keystone State voters approved of Corbett's handling of his job as governor while 38 percent disapproved. But recent history shows the incumbent might not need to panic just yet. Former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and former GOP Gov. Tom Ridge both faced lagging polling results midway through their first term but ended up winning reelection.

The list of potential Democratic nominees is long, ranging from Treasurer Rob McCord to former Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper and Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski. York businessman Tom Wolf has expressed interest in the race, and his ability to self-fund appeals to some party leaders. Corbett's positions on social issues, including his controversial push for mandatory ultrasounds for pregnant women, have generated some talk of a female challenger. A wealthy woman from outside the political arena has been described as ideal, though no one fitting that description has stepped forward.

Fresh off his comfortable 2012 reelection victory, McCord is often cited as the most likely eventual nominee, thanks to his two statewide wins and proven fundraising prowess. But some Democrats privately express concerns that he would have trouble uniting residents of the state's disparate regions. McCord, who hails from the close-in suburbs of Philadelphia, could struggle to resonate with voters in the southwestern part of the state. One Philadelphia Democrat also expressed concerns that McCord could be tarred as a "Democratic Mitt Romney" during a contentious primary due to his former career in venture capital.

Meanwhile, some of the most promising Democrats in the state are expected to remain on the bench this cycle. Ceisler said that Montgomery County Commission chair Josh Shapiro "is perfectly positioned to take on Corbett except for the fact that he just got in his job" in 2011. Similarly, Kane has demonstrated her ability to amass broad-based support, having earned more votes statewide in November than both Casey and President Obama. But Kane just won her first statewide election last year, making it unlikely she'll turn around and launch a gubernatorial campaign in 2014.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly said Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa., has denied interest in running for governor. Schwartz has not publicly ruled out running.

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