Tom Wolf: Democratic Lifesaver or Liability?

The Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate leads in the polls heading into a May primary, but the businessman is largely an unknown quantity.

National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
April 24, 2014, 3:20 p.m.

One month be­fore Pennsylvania’s Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al primary, it’s un­clear wheth­er any­one can stop the mo­mentum of pre­vi­ously little-known can­did­ate Tom Wolf.

The busi­ness­man and former state Rev­en­ue sec­ret­ary has carved out a 20-plus-point lead in the polls over more es­tab­lished rivals, thanks to the name ID he’s built from more than a dozen pos­it­ive, feel-good TV ads tout­ing his busi­ness acu­men and lib­er­al cre­den­tials. His ads have been backed by a $10 mil­lion in­fu­sion of per­son­al cash, and the early-and-of­ten me­dia strategy has left fel­low Demo­crats Rob Mc­Cord, Katie Mc­Ginty, and Rep. Allyson Schwartz scram­bling to catch up.

But Wolf’s ab­rupt rise has also brought with it fresh scru­tiny of his busi­ness back­ground and polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion. Enough that Demo­crats might stop and ask them­selves: What kind of can­did­ate are they get­ting if he wins the nom­in­a­tion on May 20?

Wolf’s busi­ness back­ground, on pa­per, looks good and sets him apart from most Demo­crats. But Re­pub­lic­ans be­lieve ques­tions sur­round­ing his fam­ily build­ing-sup­ply com­pany could also be used against the po­ten­tial nom­in­ee. And a lackluster fun­drais­ing re­port to kick off 2014 raised ques­tions about the ef­fic­acy of his polit­ic­al op­er­a­tion. Com­bined, they’ve stirred spec­u­la­tion that Demo­crats are pin­ning their hopes of de­feat­ing Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Tom Corbett this fall on an un­tested, un­vet­ted can­did­ate.

The fear among Demo­crats might turn out to be un­foun­ded, and, re­gard­less, many in the party be­lieve Corbett’s poor poll num­bers make him so vul­ner­able noth­ing else mat­ters any­way. But there’s no doubt that nom­in­at­ing a first-time can­did­ate car­ries sig­ni­fic­ant risk for Demo­crats in a gov­ernor’s race they should win com­fort­ably.

Wolf’s per­son­al fin­ances came un­der scru­tiny re­cently after The Phil­adelphia In­quirer ran a story delving in­to the de­tails of his fam­ily com­pany. The story re­vealed that his busi­ness lost half its value dur­ing the re­ces­sion, and that nearly half — $4.45 mil­lion — of the $10 mil­lion Wolf put to­ward his cam­paign came from a bank loan se­cured us­ing per­son­al, not cor­por­ate, as­sets. The money is not so much the spoil of a suc­cess­ful busi­ness ca­reer, but as Wolf said at a re­cent de­bate, “I really cobbled to­geth­er everything I had.”

The York-area nat­ive has since worked to re­frame him­self as a fin­an­cial self-starter, not a self-fun­der. But the fact that de­tails about his per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al life have nev­er been pub­licly vet­ted means vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies could still be ex­posed.

While it’s com­pletely pos­sible Wolf doesn’t have any skel­et­ons in his closet, “there’s not a lot that hasn’t been said about Allyson Schwartz,” said Re­pub­lic­an strategist Ray Za­borney. As for the gov­ernor who’s still wait­ing to find out who his chal­lenger is, Za­borney said, “I think Corbett prob­ably breathed a sigh of re­lief when The In­quirer prin­ted that story.”

Za­borney ad­ded: “The danger for Wolf and Demo­crats is the ques­tion of wheth­er this is just scratch­ing the sur­face, or is there more to come. Will Demo­crats be able to sort it out in five weeks? Prob­ably not.”

The Corbett cam­paign is already work­ing to put Wolf in­to a Mitt Rom­ney-sized box by de­mand­ing that he re­lease 10 years of cor­por­ate tax re­turns, and the state GOP is us­ing past busi­ness profits tied to the state’s pub­lic-pen­sion sys­tem to ques­tion his status as an out­sider.

The nature of the money that has fueled Wolf’s rise also points to the big­ger is­sue of wheth­er he can reel in the cash needed to com­pete with Corbett in the gen­er­al. Tax re­turns show that Wolf earned $2.2 mil­lion in 2012, which might not be enough to sus­tain a self-fun­ded cam­paign. And Wolf’s first-quarter fun­drais­ing haul was just over $611,000, less than some House can­did­ates take in dur­ing a quarter and far less than Corbett raised — $1.4 mil­lion.

Wolf has raised an ad­di­tion­al $3.8 mil­lion out­side his per­son­al money since the start of 2013, and $1 mil­lion of that came from a single donor. Schwartz and Corbett each raised more than $8 mil­lion dur­ing that time.

Wolf ended the quarter with his fin­an­cial ad­vant­age in­tact, but just barely. He re­por­ted $7 mil­lion in the bank, while Corbett had $5.9 mil­lion and Schwartz had $5.1 mil­lion. For con­text, former Demo­crat­ic Gov. Ed Rendell raised nearly $100 mil­lion between his 2002 and 2006 bids and Corbett spent nearly $25 mil­lion to win of­fice in 2010.

Strategists from both parties agree the even­tu­al Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee will have the fin­an­cial back­ing to com­pete. Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant Dan Fee, who isn’t in­volved with any of the four can­did­ates’ primary cam­paigns, said: “Corbett is the most vul­ner­able gov­ernor in the coun­try. Every Demo­crat has a ves­ted in­terest in mak­ing sure that he loses. The concept that the [Demo­crat­ic Gov­ernors As­so­ci­ation] or any oth­er na­tion­al Demo­crats are go­ing to let him win for lack of re­sources or ad­vice is un­fathom­able.”

But Wolf’s cam­paign so far has mostly been built on heavy ad spend­ing rather than on the grip-and-grin cir­cuit that helps build a strong base of sup­port.

“His fam­ily for­tune has en­abled him to by­pass some of the ob­lig­at­ory schmooz­ing that has to be done in dif­fer­ent circles by the oth­er can­did­ates,” said former Demo­crat­ic Lt. Gov. Mark Sin­gel. “While they were out work­ing the county and state com­mit­tee mem­bers and the more tra­di­tion­al sup­port from movers and shakers in the party struc­ture, Wolf was put­ting to­geth­er a plan based on money and how to spend it wisely.”

The stakes are high in Pennsylvania this year. The state will be an im­port­ant pres­id­en­tial battle­ground in 2016, and Fee poin­ted out that if Demo­crats can win and hold the gov­ernor­ship through 2020 they’ll have more in­flu­ence on the next round of re­dis­trict­ing, which was heav­ily ger­ry­mandered for Re­pub­lic­ans by the GOP-con­trolled Le­gis­lature in 2010.

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