Do Women Have What It Takes to Beat Tom Corbett?

This could be the year Pennsylvania elects its first female governor.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 22: Katie McGinty attends the 33rd Annual Women's Campaign Fund Parties of Your Choice Gala at Christie's Auction House on April 22, 2013 in New York City.
National Journal
Karyn Bruggeman
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Karyn Bruggeman
Jan. 26, 2014, 11:54 p.m.

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.”

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