HARRISBURG – The conventional wisdom says political parties should avoid contested primary elections.
The more candidates in the ring, the theory goes, the more likely they are to split the party membership into feuding factions that hold grudges and undermine support a nominee needs to win the general election.
But some contests buck convention. Republicans Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge won contested primaries in 1978 and 1994 respectively and went on to become two-term governors.
Ed Rendell, the ex-Philadelphia mayor who beat then-Auditor General Bob Casey in a hard-fought, 2002 gubernatorial primary, rejected the notion that contested primaries lead to weak nominees. Rendell would serve two terms as governor; Casey is a U.S. senator.
“The day after the primary, everyone in the state knew who I was,” Rendell recalled. “I had the feel of a winner. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
It’s unclear whether the image of York businessman Tom Wolf, the Democratic front-runner going into Tuesday’s gubernatorial primary, was tarnished by attacks that two of his three opponents unleashed in debates and TV ads in the final weeks of the campaign.
State Treasurer Rob McCord injected the race issue by questioning Wolf’s relationship with former York Mayor Charlie Robertson, who in 2002 was acquitted of murder in the death of a black woman in the 1969 race riots. Wolf said he headed Robertson’s 2001 re-election campaign but after Robertson was charged helped persuade him to abandon the campaign.
U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz sought to link the $20 million Wolf received from the sale of his family company in 2006 with subsequent layoffs. Wolf responded that the layoffs occurred after his departure, as the Wolf Organization shrank during the national recession. He said he saved other jobs when he resumed day-to-day control of the company in 2009.
The soft-spoken Wolf has responded to his Democratic critics not by counter-attack but by likening their strategy to the kind of politics regular Pennsylvanians dislike.
A Franklin & Marshall College poll released Wednesday showed Schwartz and McCord with slight gains in support since a similar survey in March. But Wolf held a 19-point lead over Schwartz, his closest competitor. The other candidate, former state Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty, trailed the pack.
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s stubbornly low job-approval ratings have stoked Democratic interest in challenging the incumbent this year.
Rendell, who joined Casey in publicly condemning the McCord ad, said the intra-party attacks have had little effect on Wolf’s prospects.
“I don’t think they laid a glove on Wolf,” he said.
In the absence of opposition to Corbett in the primary, the governor’s campaign and the state Republican Party have already begun attacking Wolf in TV spots and mailings.
“Wolf’s been running attacks against the governor for over a year,” said Mike Barley, Corbett’s campaign manager.
Barley said Wolf’s Democratic competitors raised “serious questions about his candidacy and his record” that need to be answered.
The Corbett campaign will “tell the Tom Wolf story that his record lends itself to. He is going to come out looking every bit like the typical politician he claims he’s not,” Barley said.