County poised for big role in governor's race

By John Kopp, Delaware County Daily Times

Sunday, September 21, 2014

A trail of cameraman, photographers and reporters followed Tom Wolf in and out of several Chester Upland classrooms last week, shuffling to capture every move the Democratic gubernatorial candidate made.

Wolf — the race frontrunner, according to various polls — was making his second Delaware County campaign event in less than a week, having previously stopped in Media to accept the endorsement of Planned Parenthood. The appearances were Wolf’s first publicized county visits since he overwhelmingly captured the Democratic nomination in May.

His opponent, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, has made regular visits to Delaware County since his re-election efforts heated up last winter.

Expect both candidates to reappear in Delaware County before the Nov. 4 general election, perhaps multiple times.

Fairing well, if not winning, the four suburban Philadelphia counties is essential to any gubernatorial candidate. Three of them rank among the state’s five most populated counties. The fourth — Chester County — ranks seventh.

Whether the Philadelphia suburbs play a critical role this year remains to be seen. Wolf holds a double-digit advantage in the polls; the closest shows him leading by 11 points. Others have him up by nearly 25 points, prompting some to wonder whether Corbett still holds a viable chance to win.

“When you’re that far down, you need to hit a home run in every corner of the state,” said Tim Malloy, a pollster for the Quinnipiac University poll, which has Wolf up by 24 points. Corbett is “just in a deep, deep hole with not much time.”

Corbett won the Philadelphia suburban counties by 23,626 votes in 2010, despite losing Delaware and Montgomery counties. It marked the first time in at least two decades that Delco did not support the winning candidate. Yet, Corbett lost just four counties on the way to a 9-point win against Dan Onorato.

The polling numbers suggest a different outcome this time. The latest Franklin & Marshall College poll, released in late August, showed Wolf winning in each of its seven regional breakdowns, including by a 31-point margin in the Philadelphia suburban counties.

Corbett campaign manager Mike Barley acknowledged the need for Corbett to do well in the Philadelphia suburbs, but said the governor does not necessarily need to win them. Instead, he stressed the importance of voter turnout, both in Delaware County and Republican strongholds across the state.

“Clearly, you can get caught up looking at different counties,” Barley said. “If you’re not doing well in one county, you need another county to outperform. It’s a matter of trying to offset votes.

“It comes down to turnout. Can we turn out voters and can they turn out their voters?”

Across the state, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 1 million voters. Democrats also hold the advantage in Delco, but local Republicans are quick to note they have more active voters.

Barley said turnout in heavily Democratic Philadelphia could play a big factor in the race. The higher the turnout there, the more votes Republicans need to make up across the state. But Barley also noted Democrats are notorious for staying home during midterm elections and praised the state GOP for its organization.

“This race is close,” Barley said. “Do I believe we’re winning at the moment? No. Do I believe we’re going to win at Election Day? Yes.”

Corbett has spent considerable time in Delaware County, having made 10 visits since January as part of his campaign or in his official capacity. Wolf has made three campaign stops.

“Obviously, Corbett is here more often because it’s desperation,” said David Landau, chairman of the Delaware County Democratic . “If he can’t make any inroads here, he has no prayer of winning.”

Delaware County GOP chairman Andy Reilly countered, claiming Wolf is taking Delco voters for granted.

“To me, it’s Tom Wolf taking the voters of Delaware County for granted,” Reilly said. “I think it’s a risky play.”

Wolf campaign spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said the campaign does not form its strategy based on where Corbett appears. He heralded the support Wolf received in both Philadelphia and its suburbs during the primary, saying Democrats share much excitement for Wolf.

“Gov. Corbett — his schedule doesn’t dictate ours in any way,” Sheridan said. “Our strategy has not changed throughout this election. It’s Tom getting out to meet with businesses and families and workers and talking with them, whether it’s on the factory floor or a plant somewhere.”

Sheridan also praised the work of Katie McGinty and her Campaign for a Fresh Start, which has traversed the state blasting Corbett for underfunding schools while refusing to tax natural gas drillers.

During his Delco visits, Corbett has attempted to reclaim the education narrative, repeatedly noting the 2011 state education cuts resulted from the loss of federal funding. He also has tied property tax increases to the state’s ballooning pension costs.

Whether those messages resonate by Nov. 4 remains to be seen.

Matthew Kerbel, chairman of the Villanova University Department of Political Science, said voters have had four years to settle their opinion on Corbett. As an incumbent, Corbett has little room to grow.

“The danger is you reach a point where voters just stop listening to you,” Kerbel said. “They made up their minds and they tune you out.”

Kerbel said he was unsure whether voters have reached that point, but he was pessimistic about Corbett’s chances.

“The numbers aren’t moving and they haven’t moved in a very long time,” Kerbel said. “Nothing seems to be resonating.”

Despite his frequent Delco appearances, Corbett has done most of his campaigning alone. Only local Republicans in safely held seats have appeared next to him. Local Democrats have been quick to tie their opponents to Corbett in any way possible.

Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College, said that is typical of races in which the candidate at the top of the ticket is struggling.

“They’re never a team when the head of the ticket isn’t doing well,” Madonna said. “They don’t know what team means in that case.”

Barley said the lack of dual campaigning was a “matter of scheduling,” saying the Corbett campaign notifies the local GOP of its events. Reilly agreed, saying Republicans like state Senate candidate Tom McGarrigle often have their own campaign obligations established by the time they are notified.

Asked whether it would be detrimental for McGarrigle to appear alongside Corbett, McGarrigle campaign chairman Michael Puppio pointed to the county’s history of ticket-splitting.

“I don’t believe this election will be any different,” Puppio said. “Our voters are sophisticated enough to make decisions on each and every candidate.”

By contrast, several Democratic candidates appeared alongside Wolf at his Media appearance, including John Kane, McGarrigle’s opponent for the open seat in the 26th Senatorial District.

Yet, James Hedtke, a history and political science professor at Cabrini College, wondered whether Wolf will generate many coattails, in part because he does not have the patronage following of a typical politician. Democrats also have made the election more of an anti-Corbett vote than an anti-Republican vote, he said.

“That is not being driven home by the Democrats and I think that is a big mistake,” Hedtke said. “I think that’s going to hurt the Democrats at the local level.”

Kane spokesman Aren Platt acknowledged that a strong top of the ticket does not necessarily trickle down to the local races. But he said Democrats remain excited by the political climate, saying local candidates have an opportunity to show voters that they share the same anger toward Harrisburg.

“It’s more like blocking in football,” Platt said. “Some of the defenders have been moved away and there’s a path. But we all have to get there on our own.”

The political climate is much different than in 2010, when tea party conservatives and anger toward Obamacare sparked a nationwide epublican wave, Madonna said. Now, people are upset about the education.

No Pennsylvania governor has overcome the polling deficit Corbett faces. No governor has lost his re-election bid, either.

“As I like to say,” Madonna said, “He’s going to make history either way.”