HARRISBURG – It’s the comparison to eight years ago that nags at some Republicans.
Then-U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum was deemed unworthy of re-election by 47 percent of voters surveyed in an independent poll 14 months before he lost to Bob Casey in a landslide that shook Pennsylvania politics.
Now many Republicans are watching with growing unease as Gov. Tom Corbett’s poll numbers deteriorate. In late August – 14 months before voters decide on their next governor – the same pollster, Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, said 69 percent of registered voters did not believe Corbett deserves a second term.
It’s led some GOP loyalists to question whether it’s time to recruit another candidate to run in 2014.
Pennsylvania’s Republican Party chairman, Rob Gleason, said he knows of no internal dissension over Corbett.
“Our party is united behind Tom Corbett, everybody is going to be working hard for Tom Corbett and Tom Corbett is going to be re-elected,” Gleason said Friday.
John Brabender, a consultant to Corbett’s re-election campaign, said party stalwarts ex-Gov. Tom Ridge, U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and Santorum are supporting Corbett. Plus, polling numbers for Corbett will not matter until after voters know who his Democratic opponent will be, and Corbett’s campaign begins spending money to sell his candidacy to the public, Brabender said.
And besides, Brabender said, politicians of all stripes are suffering because of the discord in Washington, D.C.
“Right now, there are a lot of generic numbers for candidates everywhere that aren’t what they should be and, quite frankly, that’s reflective of what’s going on in Washington,” Brabender said.
Since Corbett’s first year in office, Republican lawmakers, party officials and political consultants have privately griped that he lacked the flair for building relationships or making a persuasive policy argument to the public.
Republicans note that it would be unprecedented in modern Pennsylvania politics for a party to abandon its governor. And strategists say a sitting governor tends to have a fundraising advantage over a challenger – perhaps one reason no Pennsylvania governor has been denied re-election since the state began allowing its chief executive to seek a second term in 1974.
Corbett’s campaign is forcefully broadcasting the message that he’s not stepping aside.
“The governor’s going to run, he’s going to win the nomination and we’re going to win a tough re-election,” campaign manager Mike Barley said.
Corbett has not officially declared his candidacy, despite having an active campaign organization and an aggressive fundraising operation. No Republican has declared an intention to run against him.
Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce Castor, who briefly flirted with a challenge earlier this year, said there continues to be discussion among party members about mounting a primary challenge to Corbett.
“But it’s going absolutely nowhere because anybody who potentially would be a candidate does not want to run into the financial buzz-saw that they would run into in a primary against Tom Corbett,” Castor said.
Delaware County’s Republican Party chairman, Andrew Reilly, said he has been on the receiving end of concerned phone calls. But he said that concern revolves around the governor’s message of accomplishment being drowned out by Democratic Party-driven uproar over “poorly drawn analogies” – a reference to Corbett’s recent statement on same-sex marriage, singled out by Democrats as offensive.
“It’s more frustration. It’s not discussion based on the governor’s performance,” Reilly said. “It’s based on, ‘Hey, we’re really not getting our message out.”’
Next year is a particularly sensitive one for Republicans should Corbett, their top-of-the-ticket candidate, fare poorly: Six of seven GOP-held state Senate seats in the closely divided Philadelphia suburbs are up for re-election, and losses of two seats could leave the 50-member chamber deadlocked.
A worrisome scenario for Republicans is one where Democratic challengers attack Republican senators as enablers of Corbett, and the incumbents respond by refusing to defend him.
Republican strategists point out that incumbent lawmakers have a heavy advantage and have long survived in overwhelming numbers all sorts of toxic forces, including the national wave elections of 2008 and 2010. The last time a state Senate incumbent lost was in 2004.
In any case, Corbett’s supporters argue that he can win in tough conditions – he won a second term for state attorney general during a Democratic wave in 2008 – and that his strong performance in 2010 helped elevate Toomey to U.S. Senate.
“I think people in politics today, we jump too quickly and don’t take a long measured view of history,” Reilly said. “Generally, candidates perform based on past history, and (Corbett’s) history is excellent.”