Monster Upset? Tom Wolf has Tom Corbett and the GOP's gubernatorial legacy on the run | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Monster Upset? Tom Wolf has Tom Corbett and the GOP's gubernatorial legacy on the run

"Tom Corbett is making history on November 4, one way or another."

In the summer of 2005, Ed Rendell was in real trouble. His job-approval ratings were low and only four out of 10 voters thought he deserved a second term as governor.

G. Terry Madonna, the well-known Franklin & Marshall pollster, wrote on his blog at the time: "The approaching 2006 election cycle may break the iron grip incumbents now have on public office."

For most of the next year, talk focused on whether the streak of Pennsylvania incumbent governors winning re-election – going back to the first election following the 1968 change in state law – would be broken. Many pundits thought Rendell, who was going to face popular Republican and former Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann, could be the first. While most people talk about the streak of incumbent governors, there was even more at stake: Republicans and Democrats have traded the governor's office every eight years since 1955.

But Rendell spent much of that year using the governor's office to his advantage, changing his image and improving his once-dismal 42-percent approval ratings. By the end of the November general election, Rendell had trounced Swann with 60 percent of the vote.

"Rendell started off his governorship with pretty low approval ratings, so did [Republican] Tom Ridge for that matter, but they were able to fix them," Madonna tells City Paper now. "This year is a much different situation. Tom Corbett has never been able to recover from the budget cuts he made in his first year.

"Tom Corbett is making history on November 4, one way or another. He'll either have to win reelection by overcoming the largest poll deficit in history two weeks before the election, or he'll be the first candidate to lose the governor's office for his party since the 1950s."

The foretelling of Corbett's potential demise has been in the cards for some time. In August 2013, Madonna's Franklin & Marshall poll showed that just 17 percent of respondents thought Corbett was doing a good job and just 20 percent thought he should be re-elected.

It was during Corbett's first budget that voters got a sense of his priorities. He cut $1 billion from education when he refused to use state money to replace expiring federal stimulus dollars — which accounted for half of the $1 billion lost — despite replacing lost stimulus dollars in other areas, like corrections. Corbett has put roughly $1.5 billion into education since then, but most of that went into pensions, leaving basic education — the money sent to classrooms — below the levels they were when he arrived, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

But it wasn't education cuts alone that cost Corbett credibility with voters, Madonna says. There were several key policy reforms that Corbett didn't get done — pension reform, charter-school reform and liquor-store privatization, for example — that cost him.

"He cut school funding and taxpayers in the majority of the state's 500 school districts saw property-tax hikes and layoffs and program cuts in their schools," Madonna says. "Then, he failed to deliver on other parts of his agenda.

"What makes it worse for him is that he couldn't get these things done and his own party has controlled the legislature. He hasn't been able to effectively communicate with them and that has led to a lot of disarray."

Corbett has also had his problems when it comes to social issues. Earlier this year, he may have made a bit of headway when he decided not to appeal a federal court's ruling legalizing same-sex marriage or a state court's decision striking down the voter-ID law he had pushed for and signed in 2012. However, the consensus seems to be that Corbett more or less gave up on those issues rather than actually changing his mind.

He also got some favorable headlines on medical-marijuana legalization when, in an effort to hold off a planned sit-in by parents of children with debilitating epilepsy that could be helped by medical cannabis, he said he supported a limited pilot program at some in-state hospitals. However, that program was never established, and last week a senate-passed medical-marijuana bill died in a house committee.

And then there's the governor's track record on women's health. Corbett not only signed and supported a law that placed onerous, "medically unnecessary" restrictions on health centers that perform abortions, but also supported other legislation like one that required any woman who decided to have an abortion to go through a mandatory ultrasound. That led to the governor's statement that women who didn't want to watch could just "close their eyes."

Those policies and many others led Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania to do a weekly countdown of the "Top 10 reasons why Pennsylvania women can't afford four more years of Tom Corbett."

Madonna says Corbett's re-election struggles come at a time when Democratic President Barack Obama is also seeing sagging approval ratings. Ordinarily, that would be a time for Republicans to make up ground, not lose it. If the state's "eight-year rule" were going to be broken, this wouldn't ordinarily seem like the year.

"This should be a pretty good year for Republicans generally, but that wave hasn't seemed to help the governor and I think that's a pretty significant indicator of the future," Madonna says. "I think the state is no longer purple and is now trending light blue [toward Democrats]. And if the Republicans lose control of this seat, I think all bets are off, possibly for a decade or so.

"Democrats have taken the state during the last six presidential elections, the state has a Democratic Attorney General for the first time, and all three state row offices are in Democratic hands."

GOP political strategist Bill Green seems to agree.

"The state GOP is not in very good shape," Green told City Paper this past summer. "Ten years ago, you had a bench of politicians that included Mike Fisher, Tom Ridge, Rick Santorum, Jim Roddey, Melissa Hart, the Ories [former state Rep. Jane Orie and her sister Judge Joan Orie Melvin], and that's a list I can develop without putting much thought into it.

"But that's all gone now. It looks like we're about to break an almost 70-year tradition of eight years with a Republican and eight years with a Democrat as governor. And if that happens, it's because Corbett wasn't able to do the things he said he was going to do with a Republican-controlled legislature, and that will show that he wasn't an effective commander."

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By Mars Johnson