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
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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