HARRISBURG – Pennsylvania Democrats Tuesday tapped millionaire businessman Tom Wolf as their nominee to challenge Republican Gov. Tom Corbett after Wolf dug deep into his own pocket to finance months of folksy TV ads that catapulted him to the top of a four-way race.
Returns from 25 percent of the state’s 9,184 precincts showed Wolf with 57 percent of the vote, ahead of U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, state Treasurer Rob McCord and former state environmental protection secretary Katie McGinty.
Wolf’s victory capped a months-long TV courtship of voters with ads featuring his Jeep Wrangler and testimonials from his wife, his two grown daughters and employees of his kitchen cabinet company. Wolf poured $10 million into his campaign, which made him a household name and gave him a crucial early advantage.
Philadelphia resident Shawn Chilton said he backed Wolf largely because of the ad campaign. “I got comfortable with him because of that,” he said after voting early Tuesday.
Wolf’s nomination is a threat to Corbett, who is viewed as vulnerable, and a Wolf victory in the general election would break a four-decade gubernatorial tradition. Ever since the state constitution was changed in 1968 to allow governors to succeed themselves, every governor has been awarded a second term.
Corbett and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, who were unopposed for the GOP nomination, said in a statement they would scrutinize Wolf’s “made-for-TV campaign” and expose his “tax-and-spend policies.” The incumbents said they would press their “more jobs, less taxes” motto.
Wolf set up his victory party at the minor-league baseball stadium in his home city of York, where scores of supporters munched free snacks under bright floodlights waiting to hear his victory speech.
“I feel like I’m the ‘luckiest man on the face of the earth’,” he said in an email to reporters shortly after his victory became clear.
Tuesday’s primary also features a five-way race for the Democratic nomination as lieutenant governor.
Voters were also choosing nominees for the state’s 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, all 203 state House seats and half the 50 state Senate seats.
After casting his ballot in the central Pennsylvania town of Mount Wolf — a town named for his ancestors — Wolf said his campaign resonated with voters because he is a “different kind of candidate.”
Though new at politics, “I have a lot of experience doing things in life,” he said.
The four Democratic candidates together raised more than $35 million to compete for the nomination to take on Corbett on Nov. 4.
At a polling place in New Cumberland, Democrat John Kerr said he voted for Wolf because he thought he stood the best chance of defeating Corbett. “The rest are a bunch of politicians,” he said.
Corbett, elected in 2010 largely on his reputation as the state’s corruption-fighting attorney general, has been saddled with low job-approval ratings. When he kicked off his re-election campaign in January, one poll showed fewer than half of the state’s Republicans believed he deserved another term.
Among the reasons cited by Corbett’s critics are his nearly $1 billion education spending cut in his first year and his opposition to efforts to impose an extraction tax on Pennsylvania’s thriving natural gas industry, which would produce hundreds of millions of dollars for the state.
Despite running unopposed, Corbett has been running TV ads, including one aimed at Wolf and another that touches on his own unpopularity by saying he didn’t go to Harrisburg to make friends but to make tough decisions.
In the highest-profile congressional primary, former one-term congresswoman Marjorie Margolies was in a four-way battle for the Democratic nomination to succeed Schwartz in the 13th District, which includes parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County. Margolies counts Bill and Hillary Clinton as family; her son is married to their daughter Chelsea. The other candidates are an anesthesiologist and two state lawmakers.
In the governor’s race, Wolf, 65, sought to define himself as the non-politician even though he served as state revenue secretary for nearly two years under Gov. Ed Rendell.
He highlighted turning around The Wolf Organization, a York building-products company that has been in his family for six decades, as well as his stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in India and his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The friendly discussions that marked early debates took on an increasingly negative tone last month.
Schwartz raised questions about a loan that provided nearly half of Wolf’s $10 million campaign nest egg and about layoffs that occurred at Wolf’s company during a time he had given up day-to-day control of the company.
McCord questioned 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 city’s 1969 race riots. Wolf said he headed Robertson’s 2001 re-election campaign but helped persuade him to abandon the campaign after charges were filed.