In a race that breaks sharply with the state’s electoral pattern, Democratic businessman Tom Wolf, a virtual unknown in Pennsylvania politics at the start of this year, is poised to win the governor’s seat next month in a race that is shaping up as a referendum of unpopular Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
Mr. Wolf, 65, who has never held elected office, is leading Mr. Corbett in polls by an average of more than 15 percentage points. If the Democrat’s lead holds, it would mark the first time an incumbent has lost since Pennsylvania began allowing two-term governors in the early 1970s. The past six governors have won second terms by an average of 21 percentage points.
Pennsylvania governors “don’t just win; they win overwhelmingly,” said Christopher Borick, an independent pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “History is on the line.”
Chairman of a family-owned building materials company in York, Mr. Wolf has underwritten his rise to prominence by donating $10 million of his personal fortune to his campaign.
He will get a boost Tuesday when former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton comes to Philadelphia to campaign for him. She won the state over Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary after Mr. Obama’s infamous comment about the state’s voters clinging to their guns and religion.
Although it’s Mr. Wolf’s first bid for political office, he did serve about 18 months as state revenue secretary under Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat who praised Mr. Wolf as “the guy next door, except smarter.”
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“Tom’s a quick study,” Mr. Rendell said in an interview. “He won’t be in over his head. Sound executive judgment is fungible. If you make sound executive judgments in business, you’ll make sound judgments as” governor.
But the Democrat, who is calling for tax increases as well as a middle-class tax cut, also is benefiting from a backlash against Mr. Corbett, a former state attorney general who defeated Democrat Don Onorato by nearly 9 percentage points in the 2010 governor’s race. Mr. Borick’s poll for The (Allentown) Morning Call on Sept. 21 showed the governor’s rating at 55 percent unfavorable and 33 percent favorable.
When the pollster asked Mr. Wolf’s supporters why they intend to vote for the Democrat, 50 percent cited “dissatisfaction with Corbett.” Only 23 percent of voters who support Mr. Wolf said they are motivated by positive views of him.
“More power is coming from the anti-Corbett feeling,” Mr. Borick said.
The governor has been hampered by widespread public perception that he cut education funding and by his opposition to a severance tax on shale gas drillers, a proposal supported by a majority of voters in the cash-strapped state.
Mr. Corbett even has been hurt by his role while serving as attorney general in the Penn State football sexual abuse scandal and last week had to address an embarrassing flap in which two aides resigned for circulating pornographic emails while they worked for Mr. Corbett in the attorney general’s office.
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Mr. Wolf has attacked the governor for cutting education funding and causing thousands of teacher layoffs.
“Property taxes are going through the roof in your administration,” the challenger told Mr. Corbett in a debate last week. “People in many schools are paying to have their kids participate in extracurricular activities. Services have been cut.”
Mr. Corbett said he increased state funding to school districts but overall education spending declined when federal stimulus money from the Obama administration dried up.
“That’s when the cut took place,” he told Mr. Wolf in the debate. “You’re trying to convince the people of Pennsylvania, and the teachers unions of Pennsylvania are trying to convince people, that I cut education. I didn’t. It was done in the two years before.”
Mr. Wolf has aired a popular TV ad arguing that the shortfall of school education funding could be replaced with money from a 5 percent extraction tax on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, by the state’s burgeoning shale gas industry.
Mr. Corbett has steadfastly resisted the proposal.
“When it’s in its infancy, you need to allow it to get established,” Mr. Corbett said of the industry, adding that the tax would make the state less competitive. Pennsylvania under Mr. Corbett has been among the most aggressive states promoting the oil drilling technique in recent years.
Penn State scandal
The Penn State sex abuse scandal also has dogged Mr. Corbett, who began his investigation of former football defensive coach Jerry Sandusky during his tenure as attorney general. Sandusky ultimately was convicted under Attorney General Kathleen Kane of abusing numerous boys, but Mr. Corbett has suffered from the perception that he didn’t do enough to prosecute the former coach and that he acted too harshly against legendary coach Joe Paterno and the university as an ex-officio member of the school’s board of trustees, initially embracing NCAA sanctions against the school.
Mr. Borick, a Penn State graduate, said anecdotally that he still hears grumbling about Mr. Corbett from other Penn State alumni, many of them Republicans.
“They can’t wait to vote against him,” Mr. Borick said. “He’s got a little gap [in polls] among Republicans, and it’s still the Penn State factor no doubt contributing.”
Corbett campaign spokesman Billy Pitman noted that the governor later tried to roll back the NCAA sanctions against the school by filing a lawsuit and said the Penn State controversy isn’t hurting his re-election bid.
“I don’t really see that as an issue,” Mr. Pitman said. “Going back to his days as attorney general, he’s proud of what he’s done to fight for our kids. A serial child predator was taken off the streets. He’s behind bars effectively for the rest of his life, and that’s what matters in that case.”
Ms. Kane, a Democrat, also has complicated the governor’s re-election bid by revealing batches of emails from Mr. Corbett’s tenure as attorney general in which employees of the office circulated missives with sexually suggestive subject lines, pictures of naked women and graphic depictions of sexual intercourse. Media organizations sought the emails under the state’s right-to-know law.
Mr. Corbett said he knew nothing about the emails while he was serving as attorney general, but the governor received the resignations Friday of two men who were involved in the scandal: E. Christopher Abruzzo, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, and a top lawyer in that office, Glenn Parno. State Parole Board Chairman Randy Feathers, who was the lead investigator in the Sandusky case, has refused Mr. Corbett’s call to resign.
Mr. Wolf has seized on the flap by blaming Mr. Corbett for allowing a troubling culture in the attorney general’s office. Mr. Corbett later called the Democrat’s accusation “a cheap shot.”
The governor planned to attack Mr. Wolf’s performance as revenue secretary by calling attention to his inaccurate revenue forecasts in 2007-2008, but that plan was undermined this year when Mr. Corbett’s administration had to transfer $700 million from a state account to fill its own budget shortfall.
Instead, the Democrat has attacked Mr. Corbett by arguing that Pennsylvania has fallen from ninth to 47th in job creation under his stewardship. Mr. Corbett’s defense is that Mr. Wolf is manipulating the data and that the state is 36th in job creation.
Given all of the incumbent’s challenges, Mr. Wolf is riding high in polls in spite of his plans to increase state income taxes on wealthier families. He hasn’t specified an income level that will be subject to tax increases, but he has said he wants to cut taxes for the middle class. He defined the cutoff for those tax cuts as somewhere in the $70,000 to $90,000 income range for individuals.
Mr. Corbett has tried to pounce on the challenger’s tax-hike plans.
Mr. Wolf is “failing to explain exactly how much his proposal will cost Pennsylvanians,” Mr. Pitman said. “That’s part of the message going into the final stretch.”
As the governor hammers home that theme, some evidence shows his gap in the polls has narrowed slightly.
“It’s the one place where the governor can cut into Wolf’s popularity,” Mr. Borick said. “If he does tax reform, there are going to be winners and losers, and he hasn’t really specified very much who those losers and winners are. I think you’ll see the Corbett campaign continue to press that. I totally expect Wolf to continue to be fairly evasive.”
Mr. Rendell said the Democratic challenger still needs to flesh out his tax plans for voters, including details of his proposed tax hikes.
“Once he said it, he’s got to stand by it and explain what his goal is,” Mr. Rendell said. “And his goal is not to raise taxes on everybody. His goal is to reduce taxes on people in the middle class and lower middle class of the workforce, and raise taxes on the very rich. I think he’s got to explain that.”
Mr. Wolf’s personal war chest helped him defeat a crowded field in the Democratic primary, including five-term Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz of Philadelphia. The former Peace Corps volunteer holds a doctorate degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.