If GOP Gov. Tom Corbett loses this year, he would be the first Pennsylvania governor to lose reelection to a second term since the state constitution was amended to allow successive terms. But it's to whom he might lose that would be truly historic.
Keystone State voters have never elected a female governor or sent a woman to the U.S. Senate (it's one of 13 states to hold such a distinction). Yet this year, Democrats have fielded two marquee female gubernatorial candidates well-positioned to break the streak: Rep. Allyson Schwartz and Katie McGinty, a top environmental official in former Gov. Ed Rendell's Cabinet.
Schwartz is the Democrats' presumptive front-runner—she's been at the top of the polls and raked in more than $6 million in 2013. McGinty, meanwhile, is a well-respected dark horse with national connections in the environmental community. Both women lead Corbett in a general-election matchup, according to a December poll from Quinnipiac University.
So far, being a woman has been an unbreachable barrier to major statewide office in Pennsylvania. But Schwartz and McGinty might find that, in 2014, their gender is a major asset—in both a primary and general election. Democratic primary voters are thirsty to make history, while moderates casting votes in November appear eager for a fresh start to succeed a governor with whom most have grown frustrated. In Pennsylvania and elsewhere this year, voters could turn to women to fix a political system they consider dysfunctional and broken.
"The opportunity to make history excites volunteers, it excites women across Pennsylvania," Schwartz spokesman Mark Bergman said. "They're looking for a different type of leader to break through the stale politics in Harrisburg, and that may well be a woman."
Pennsylvania women already had a major breakthrough in 2012, when Attorney General Kathleen Kane became the first to win the state's top-prosecutor job. Her victory, which came over a male Republican opponent, convinced many Democrats that the party "needs a woman at the top of the ticket," said Simone Baer, a fundraiser for McGinty.
And, indeed, Corbett's appeal is smallest among women. The same December survey from Quinnipiac reported that only 31 percent of them approved of the governor's performance—58 percent disapprove. In head-to-head matchups with Corbett, the two Democrats open their widest lead among women, each besting him by roughly 15 points with the group.
That's not a big surprise, given Democrats traditionally perform better with female voters. But it does suggest that the party's "war on women" mantra, which President Obama's campaign effectively used as a cudgel against Mitt Romney in 2012, will have resonance against Corbett, whose cuts to education funding and insensitive remarks have hurt females.
"It is clear that there is a mandate for more women's leadership and we see that in Pennsylvania with the opportunity to make history there," said Marcy Stech, spokeswoman for EMILY's List, which is backing Schwartz and works to elect pro-abortion-rights Democratic women.
Schwartz or McGinty would first have to make it through the Democratic primary, no sure bet in a field that also features self-funding former Rendell official Tom Wolf and state Treasurer Rob McCord. And in a general election, one prominent issue, abortion rights, could work against either candidate. The state's culturally conservative northern and western regions make it an unpopular position, even among some Democrats.
With that in mind, the two women might tone down gender-based appeal, at least overtly. "Candidates are cultivating the female vote strategically but not overly publically," Baer said.
Republican National Committee national finance cochair and longtime Pennsylvania political operative Christine Toretti has spent years working to get more Republican women into state politics. "There is no prejudice towards electing women in Pennsylvania," Toretti said, and she doesn't see Schwartz or McGinty having any problems. But in her years spent recruiting and training Republican women candidates around the state, she's found that things as mundane as geography and the type of legislature the state has remain major barriers, especially for women with young families.
"Geographically we are such a large state and we have a full-time legislature," Toretti said, so "it's hard to recruit women who have families. Where I live I'm three hours from Harrisburg. You can't go down for the day, you have to go down Monday and come back Thursday night. When I've tried to recruit women, that's been a stumbling block."
Added Baer, "As societal norms have changed, and there are more men taking responsibility" for their families, there are also "more women running earlier, and more opportunities for them to move up the ranks." Baer has witnessed the change firsthand over the years as a staffer for former Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, finance director for Kane's 2012 campaign and now as a fundraising consultant for McGinty, who has school-age children. As evidence that times are changing, and fast, she points to the fact that "Kane's husband decided to stay home when [Kane] decided to run."
In addition to the governor's race, EMILY's List also has their eye on the race to replace Schwartz in the House, where former Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky and physician Valerie Arkoosh are both competing in the Democratic primary, and in another suburban Philadelphia district, where GOP Rep. Jim Gerlach's retirement will leave behind an open seat.
The last time a woman came close to holding a top office in Pennsylvania was 1992, when Democrat Lynn Yeakel lost narrowly to then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter. Twenty-two years later, women have another shot at it, particularly given Corbett's woeful poll numbers.
"The opportunity is there," said Jean Sinzdak, the director of the Program for Women Public Officials at Rutgers University's Center for American Women in Politics. "This seems to be the moment when a woman could get the governorship. It reminds me of other moments where I've seen these kinds of things build up, when you have a bunch of women going through the pipeline and an opportunity presents itself. It feels like the time is ripe."