HARRISBURG – At the 11th hour, two men with better-than-average name recognition jumped into the already jam-packed pools of candidates for the Democratic nominations for Pennsylvania governor and lieutenant governor.
Jack Wagner, a former state auditor general, and Jay Paterno, a son of the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, revealed their intentions Thursday at the outset of the three-week period candidates have to collect enough petition signatures to qualify for the May 20 primary election ballot. The deadline is March 11.
“I don’t remember a governor’s race where somebody announced during the (petition) filing period. That’s unprecedented,” said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and public affairs professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.
Gov. Tom Corbett is widely viewed as vulnerable this year, stoking Democratic dreams of a history-making vote to oust the Republican after one term. The first of the eight Democratic gubernatorial candidates kicked off his campaign in November 2012 – two years before the general election – and seven hopefuls are competing for lieutenant governor.
What effect, if any, Wagner or Paterno will have on the campaigns is an open question.
Wagner, 66, is a Vietnam War veteran and career politician from Pittsburgh who served in the state Senate for a decade. He ran in and lost statewide primaries for lieutenant governor in 2002 and governor in 2010, but was elected to back-to-back terms as auditor general.
He is the only Western Pennsylvania candidate for governor, giving him a potential leg up in the region, but raising money will be a huge challenge – especially so late in a campaign against opponents who collectively raised more than $27 million last year. At the end of 2013, the Friends of Jack Wagner committee had less than $32,000 in the bank.
“I don’t think (fundraising has) ever been one of his attributes,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. And with so many candidates competing for campaign cash, “there are not a lot of untapped resources.”
Still, if Wagner manages to raise enough to launch even a modest TV campaign, “he could absolutely be a player,” Borick said. “His stature gives him credibility in this field.”
Paterno, 45, is running his first campaign for public office but has been active in the Democratic Party and campaigned for President Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
He was an assistant football coach under his famous father through 2011 and is a plaintiff in his family’s lawsuit seeking the dismissal of NCAA sanctions levied against the university for the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal. Joe Paterno died in January 2012, two months after being fired by university trustees as the scandal exploded.
The lieutenant governor, among other things, presides over the state Senate and serves as acting governor if the governor is unable to perform his or her duties. Democrats and Republicans nominate their candidates for governor and lieutenant governor separately in the primary and the nominees are paired on party tickets for the general election.
Harrisburg City Councilman Brad Koplinski became the first declared candidate for lieutenant governor in February 2012 and says he has campaigned in all of the state’s 67 counties. He won about half of the votes in a six-way race – but not the required two-thirds majority – at this month’s Democratic State Committee endorsement meeting.
But like the other Democratic hopefuls in what has been a low-profile campaign, including a state senator, a state representative, a county commissioner and a former congressman, Koplinski lacks Paterno’s powerful name recognition. In discussing his newest foe, Koplinski picked his words carefully.
“We’ve got less than three months now before the primary and this is a big state,” he said. “I certainly welcome him to the race and wish him luck.”
Peter Jackson is the Capitol correspondent for the Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.