Primary spending spree was only a warmup

May 21, 2014

Pardon Tom Wolf if he quibbles with the Beatles’ assertion that money can’t buy you love.

A year ago, Wolf was a tiny blip on the Pennsylvania political radar screen. Today, he’s the Democratic nominee to run against incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett in November.

How did this happen? The short answer is: money.

Certainly, Wolf is as well-qualified as the next guy, or gal, to run the commonwealth. He has a doctorate from MIT and a solid business background, and the former state revenue secretary has just enough knowledge of the inner workings of Harrisburg to profess an ability to get things done without being labeled a political insider.

But it wasn’t his résumé that Tuesday night had him looking down – way down – on the other Democratic gubernatorial candidates, state Treasurer Rob McCord, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and former state Department of Environmental Protection chief Katie McGinty. Wolf cruised to victory on a wave of cold, hard cash.

When he entered the race, Wolf desperately needed name recognition. Ten million dollars can buy a lot of that.

That’s how much of his own money (including a whopper of a loan) that Wolf injected into his campaign. When the other Democrats were biding their time, Wolf was blanketing the airwaves with commercials introducing himself to voters across the commonwealth. By the time the first significant polls starting coming out – showing Wolf way out in front – the race was all but over.

McGinty jumped in with ads highlighting her working-class roots and her past government experience. What that ultimately got her was less than 8 percent of the vote. In desperation mode, McCord and Schwartz tried to tar Wolf through the use of dubious attack ads.

Nothing stuck.

When the votes were counted Tuesday night, Wolf had gathered nearly 60 percent of them. Schwartz, despite the built-in advantage of hailing from the populous Philadelphia area, could muster only 17.6 percent, just ahead of McCord at 16.9 percent.

Corbett had no Republican opposition in the primary, but he, like any other observer, could see which way the political winds were blowing, so he parted with some of his campaign loot to start running anti-Wolf spots on TV.

Fortunately, all those political ads we’ve been listening to will subside for a bit, but as Al Jolson said, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” The reason: There will be many more millions poured into the governor’s race over the next five months or so, and this time Wolf won’t have to dig so deeply, if at all, into his own wallet.

An Associated Press report on Tuesday’s primary said the Republican Governors Association has earmarked $8.6 million to spend in Pennsylvania; its Democratic counterpart has $3.5 million set aside.

But believe it or not, that’s no doubt going to be relative “chump change” when all the spending is done.

The candidates will, of course, be looking for contributions far and wide. Want to send them 20 bucks? They’ll gladly take it. But it’s the political-action groups and special interests that will be coughing up the big dollars to make sure their candidate spends the next four years in the governor’s mansion.

One example: In the 2010 election, Corbett got a big chunk of his campaign funding – well beyond $1 million – from Marcellus Shale interests. It’s not a stretch to say that Corbett has been a friend to the gas industry during his term, and with Wolf calling for an extraction tax on gas drillers, there’s no doubt that the incumbent will attract the lion’s share of that money again.

And when all that money rolls in, it will roll back out in an effort to reach you, the voter.

If you enjoyed seeing the campaign ads during primary season, you’re going to be in hog heaven this summer and early fall.

If not, you’ll want to be very selective with your TV viewing. Or maybe just turn off the set and read a good book. We don’t do nearly enough of that.



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