Tom Corbett can't catch a break.
Pennsylvania's Republican governor rode the tea party wave to the governor’s mansion in 2010. But since then, a failure to rally conservatives, a scandal at Penn State, and his national anonymity have made him one of the most vulnerable Republican governors up for reelection in 2014.
The most recent Quinnipiac University poll shows his approval rating stuck at 36 percent, while a 51 percent majority of Pennsylvanians believe he does not deserve reelection. Corbett could be the first Keystone State governor since 1970 not to win a second term. This comes at a time when other Republican governors in blue states — such as Chris Christie in New Jersey, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Terry Branstad in Iowa, and John Kasich in Ohio —are looking in much better shape.
So what happened with Corbett?
Much of his problem has to do with his image. Despite boasting a law-enforcement background as Pennsylvania attorney general before being elected, Corbett's style is low-key. He’s much different from Christie, his Republican neighbor with a similar professional background. While Christie has a reputation as a confrontational prosecutor and politician, Corbett prefers to make his case while keeping a lower profile.
"The governor is not engaging in a campaign. He won’t do that until 2014," Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley said, while noting the governor appeared on Greta Van Susteren’s Fox News show.
More significantly, he began his gubernatorial tenure alienating Democrats by pressing for deep spending cuts, and now is ticking off conservatives for supporting tax hikes to raise revenues.
His latest proposal lifts a cap on the state’s fuel tax as part of a transportation-funding package that he argues could raise nearly $2 billion. The plan is similar to the deal Gov. Bob McDonnell struck, which has brought the popular Virginia governor a wave of criticism from conservatives. But Corbett doesn’t start out with the same degree of goodwill as his Southern counterpart.
Meanwhile, his latest $28.4 billion budget proposal increases current spending levels and ties Corbett's top priorities of public-sector pension reform and liquor-store privatization to education spending, making life politically difficult for some Republican state senators.
Grover Norquist gave Corbett's plan the kiss of death. "This proposal is a tax increase," Norquist said.
Sensing Corbett's political vulnerability, Bruce Castor, a commissioner in suburban Philadelphia's Montgomery County, is saying he could challenge the governor in a 2014 primary. He’s a major longshot, but the fact that Corbett faces an intraparty challenge doesn’t bode well for his reelection in a Democratic-leaning state.
Corbett started out on good terms with conservatives: His 2012 budget, which cut spending by 3 percent over 2011 without raising taxes while slicing education funding by nearly a billion dollars, was welcomed by the base. It was the first budget passed on time in nine years, a sign that Corbett was serious about implementing a conservative agenda in the Keystone State.
Fast-forward to 2013, when Corbett has managed to pick fights with his base in Pennsylvania and nationally.
"The bottom line is simple. He ends up on the downside of almost everything," said Pennsylvania political analyst G. Terry Madonna.
Intra-party skirmishing is not Corbett's only problem. He's also in a tough spot with regard to the child sex-abuse scandal that brought down legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno and resulted in the conviction of former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky. Victims-rights advocates argue Corbett didn't do enough as attorney general to stop Sandusky. But many Penn State fans are upset because he didn’t fight the punitive sanctions handed down to the school’s football program. It's a lose-lose proposition for him.
Now, Corbett is entangled in a morass of lawsuits regarding the NCAA's penalties against Penn State. He sued the athletic organization, alleging that the $60 million penalties violate antitrust laws and unduly hurt the team. Meanwhile, he signed a bill requiring that the $60 million in fines be kept in the state. The NCAA is countersuing.
Nationally, as conservatives search for ways to fix their image problem after their fall defeat, Corbett struggles with the issue himself, and for similar reasons. Where the Republican Party is grappling with how to sell its economic message to middle-class voters, Corbett gets poor grades from strategists on explaining his privatization plans to Pennsylvania residents.
"He has a real message problem," said Madonna.