HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has been laying out his argument in recent days about why he deserves for a second term, taking a road trip to jump start what will be a year’s worth of re-election campaigning.
The Republican governor’s case includes cutting taxes and government spending, handling three state budgets amid an economic downturn, nurturing the Marcellus shale natural gas rush and devoting “historic amounts” to basic education.
Corbett’s poll numbers have slid from bad to worse, and his campaign kickoff follows a tough summer in which he was unable to push through any element of his three-part legislative agenda on public pensions, transportation spending and liquor privatization.
But he has won three statewide elections in the past decade, it appears he will not face a primary challenge, and he’ll have 12 months – and millions of dollars – to sell himself.
Watching from the wings this week were the five men and three women who have announced they want the Democratic nomination. Generally speaking, they think education represents Corbett’s greatest vulnerability.
“The core failing is education, education, education,” said state Treasurer Rob McCord. “It resonates with working families across the commonwealth.”
Max Myers, a small business owner and minister, argues Corbett has not shown appropriate concern for public education.
“It’s not just how he’s funding schools, it’s his attitude toward public schools,” Myers said.
Voters should expect to hear much more about education policy next year, including the governor’s claims of having opposed tax increases.
“Everybody I’ve talked to, and my own experience is, local property taxes have shot up,” said Tom Wolf, a businessman and former state revenue secretary. “So I’m not sure where he’s getting his perspective on that.”
The governor’s job record will also be in the crosshairs. He says private sector job growth is a signature achievement, but his prospective opponents say the numbers are low compared to other states, and he conveniently does not subtract out the loss of teaching and other government positions.
“The longer the governor serves, the worse job creation gets in Pennsylvania,” said John Hanger, a former state environmental protection secretary. “That’s the facts. And he, of course, tries to muck it up by talking about total private-sector jobs.”
Katie McGinty, who like Hanger served as DEP secretary under former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, said employment is not an area that Corbett should be emphasizing.
“The governor’s leading with his chin in this campaign,” McGinty said. “To highlight jobs and education … seems to me to be an unusual strategy.”
Corbett’s support for the Marcellus shale natural gas drilling industry is another target for his critics.
“I don’t see any plan or any strategy to bring jobs except Marcellus shale, and that ain’t working,” said Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski. “Those jobs are not coming into the state.”
Unlike Rendell, Corbett has made it a priority to pass budgets on time. It’s debatable as to whether the full budgets were all in place by midnight on July 1, but he has at least come close.
Balancing the budget, said U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, is not much of an accomplishment.
“That’s a state requirement,” she said. “I will balance a budget – every governor has to balance a budget. The fact that he has is not remarkable.”
The people who want his job also have much to say about the chief executive’s leadership style.
“He hasn’t been able to make a case, to be able to articulate why the Legislature, or just anybody in general, should buy into the proposals he’s putting out there,” Pawlowski said.
McCord turned Corbett’s “promises kept” re-election mantra around, saying the governor “never promised to become a provider of painfully awkward and offensive comments.”
It’s not surprising the Democrats think the governor has soft spots. But if they hope to exploit them, they’re going to have to endure the next seven months of crossfire before their primary. Corbett’s political team will be taking notes, looking for the Democrats’ own vulnerabilities.