HARRISBURG – Some see Gov. Tom Corbett as the man who beat back tax increases, imposed difficult but necessary decisions to handle a multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall and tried to keep the federal health insurance law at bay.
Others argue that he is weak, saying his Republican allies in the Legislature just handed him an embarrassing defeat on liquor privatization, transportation infrastructure and an overhaul of public pensions. Corbett has also pushed to privatize management of the Pennsylvania Lottery, but that initiative has also stalled amid political opposition and questions about its legality. Opponents attribute his poor public approval ratings to policy decisions regarding health care and education.
As Corbett begins to wade into a re-election campaign, some of his Republican friends wonder about his chances next year and Democrats see an opening.
His Democratic predecessor, former Gov. Ed Rendell, isn’t counting Corbett out.
“I don’t think he has been hurt by this in any appreciable way,” Rendell said, adding that Corbett will be able to raise plenty of campaign money and will have the prestige and agenda-defining power of the governorship. “He has time to recover, but I think he needs some successes.”
The Corbett re-election effort just rolled out its first ad in what strategists believe will be a $30 million race next year. It seems less and less likely that he will attract a serious primary opponent.
Campaign adviser John Brabender thinks the governor can sell his story to key swing groups – moderate Republicans in the Philadelphia suburbs, conservative Democrats in Johnstown, Erie and Scranton, and independents who may have voted for Corbett in 2010 and President Barack Obama last year.
Expect to hear a lot from him about jobs, taxes, government reform and, perhaps surprisingly, education, where he has been hammered over layoffs, property tax increases and larger class sizes but just signed a funding increase. He can also talk about enacting Marcellus shale regulations and an impact fee on gas drilling, changes in laws governing civil lawsuits, on-time budgets, a fix to the broken unemployment compensation system and abortion regulations.
“We are going to aggressively start sharing the Tom Corbett story in Pennsylvania,” Brabender said. “And we are not going to be shy about pointing out legitimate contrasts that he has with the many Democrats that are trying to raise a lot of money and run.”
One of them is Allyson Schwartz, a Democratic congresswoman from the Philly suburbs who was quick to capitalize on the collapse of Corbett’s nonbudget agenda last week.
“We need better leadership in Pennsylvania, and Gov. Corbett’s failure in this budget cycle demonstrates his lack of leadership,” Schwartz said, blaming him for cuts to education and disputing his new mantra about historically high levels of state support for K-12 schools.
“Being an incumbent governor, he has to stand up for what he has been and what he has accomplished – or not,” she said.
Corbett’s numbers should increase if he spends more time outside Harrisburg, said David Patti, president of the Pennsylvania Business Council. He said the governor also should continue to press for approval of the agenda that broke down in the General Assembly.
“Pennsylvanians who don’t do this for a living, who don’t do this every day, if they see a transportation bill in September instead of July, I don’t think that’s a big deal to them,” Patti said.
One of Corbett’s allies in the House, Majority Whip Stan Saylor, R-York, said that a lot can happen before the November 2014 election and that even the education cuts have a positive aspect politically.
“I don’t think you judge somebody before the completion of his term,” Saylor said. “If you want to blame the governor for not raising taxes to bring that billion dollars back, blame him for that.”
If Corbett loses, it’s likely that female voters will be one reason, so Democrats are focusing on education, health care and his anti-abortion-rights positions. Other potential liabilities include the Penn State investigation and ill-fated lawsuit against the NCAA, failure of a school choice push last year and an investigation by his successor as attorney general into how the sex abuse investigation into former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was handled.
“No one is finding this guy appealing, except for the chamber and those types of associations,” said Pennsylvania Democratic Party spokesman Marc Eisenstein. “Even this time around, the legislators didn’t find him appealing.”
The governor has 15 months to convince voters that he deserves another term.
Mark Scolforo covers state government for the Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.