It may be true, as the Beatles told us a half-century ago, that money can’t buy you love, but clearly, it can buy a person name recognition, and quite possibly a major-party nomination for a top government post.
We joked in an editorial last year on the dearth of candidates with beards and that some people might confuse then-little-known Democratic Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf, who has such a facial adornment, with best-selling author Tom Wolfe, who gave us “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” and “The Bonfire of the Vanities.” Well, no one’s laughing now, especially other candidates who are choking on the exhaust fumes from the Tom Wolf Express.
For those who have been living under a rock for the past couple of months, let us fill you in.
Wolf, a wealthy businessman from York who served as revenue secretary under Gov. Ed Rendell, spent freely from his personal fortune to blanket the state with television advertisements introducing himself to Pennsylvania voters and laying out some of his priorities, including enacting an extraction tax on the gas-drilling industry to boost spending for public schools. And, boy, has it worked.
As noted earlier, Wolf was barely a blip on the political radar screen last year, and in terms of name recognition, he was near the back of the pack of Democratic hopefuls for the governor’s mansion, trailing state Treasurer Rob McCord, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, former auditor general and seemingly perennial candidate Jack Wagner, and two former state Department of Environmental Protection secretaries, John Hanger and Katie McGinty.
A few months and millions of dollars later, the tables are turned. Results of a Harper Polling survey released earlier this week showed Wolf with the backing of 40 percent of Democratic voters who were questioned, easily outdistancing Schwartz, who had the support of 14 percent. Everyone else was in single digits. Wolf even led Schwartz among those surveyed in her Philadelphia backyard.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, some questioned the polling because of Harper’s methodology, which relied on calls to landline phones only. But then came the results of surveys from well-regarded Quinnipiac University and Franklin & Marshall College. The Quinnipiac poll found Wolf running as the strongest Democrat against incumbent Republican Tom Corbett, topping the governor by a huge margin, 52 percent to 33 percent. In the F&M survey of Democratic preferences, Wolf was the clear frontrunner, at 36 percent. No other candidate surpassed 9 percent.
Clearly, the campaign can take many twists and turns between now and the May 20 primary, and as Wolf’s opponents would be quick to point out, a lot of voters haven’t even begun to consider their options. But Wolf has positioned himself at the head of the – pardon the expression – pack. The other candidates, in their advertising over the next few months, might be forced to eschew the high road – images of them with their spouses, kids and dogs – and instead start slinging mud early and often at Wolf. Sometimes that approach works (voters are way too easily led and misinformed), but sometimes it backfires. It’s fairly certain, however, that we’ll see opponents’ ads featuring sinister, Photoshopped images of Wolf that will make him look like Willie Horton on a meth bender.
For now, the other Democratic contenders, and perhaps Corbett, have a Wolf at their door. Time will tell whether they can keep him from blowing down their houses.