By John Finnerty
The Democrat chosen next week to contest Gov. Tom Corbett’s re-election will inherit big expectations, if the one-term Republican is as vulnerable as pundits say he is.
Pennsylvania’s next chief executive, in that case, could be decided on May 20 by roughly 8 percent of the state’s population.
Pennsylvania is one of 11 states with closed primaries, which means only members of a political party are allowed to participate. That suggests about 1 million Democrats, based on historic trends, will decide which of four candidates ought to face Corbett this fall.
Political watchers don’t expect long lines at the polls, given a Democratic primary lacking much star power or difference of opinion. The candidates all have stuck to similar themes — taxing natural gas drilling and boosting school spending.
“They are so alike, voters don’t have a sense of their differences,” said Chris Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
State Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence County, said most voters are more interested in November’s general election between Corbett and the Democratic winner.
The only people who seem to care about the primary are those involved in it, he said. The average voter will probably wait for the fall.
That leaves a major decision to a relatively small slice of the state’s 12 million residents.
History suggests only about 1 in 4 of the state’s 4 million registered Democrats will take the time to vote on May 20, observers say.
Philadelphia has an outsized role in Democratic politics, with three gubernatorial candidates from its suburbs. But none has the strong city ties of former Gov. Ed Rendell, said G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor and pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.
Rendell, also a former district attorney and mayor of Philadelphia, won the 2002 Democratic primary by beating now-Sen. Bob Casey. About 1.23 million Democrats voted in that year’s primary, according to election records, with Philadelphia and its immediate suburbs accounting for about 40 percent of the ballots.
The last Democratic primary for governor featured a four-way contest — just like this year. The candidates then combined for just over 1 million votes. The drop from 2002 related to low turnout in Philadelphia, where about half the number of voters participated as did when Rendell ran eight years earlier.
This year’s primary pits former Revenue Secretary and front-runner Tom Wolf of York against three candidates from greater Philadelphia — Treasurer Rob McCord, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and former Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty.
In some ways, the Philly-centric field leaves rural Democrats feeling a little ignored.
Wolf and McGinty have visited Mercer County, but neither Schwartz nor McCord has, said Democratic chairman Charles Rice. Most active Democrats there, as a result, lean toward Wolf or McGinty, he said.
With the gubernatorial campaigns echoing each other, the only means for candidates to differentiate themselves has been to create standout personal narratives, Madonna said.
In the case of Wolf, Borick said, the campaign story became that of a job creator who rescued his family’s failing kitchen cabinet business.
Wolf used a barrage of television advertising to strike at jobs concerns that matter most to voters and parlay his personal story into a wide lead in the polls, Borick said.
That’s forced other Democrats — and the governor — to go on the attack to undermine his story.
The Jeep Wrangler that Wolf used early to show his common touch, for example, became a meme of his opponents’ ads.
“They are trying to make him less attractive, and his Jeep has become the target,” Borick said. “If they are trying to zero in on (the Jeep), it must have struck a nerve.”
Madonna said there’s no evidence that the attacks have substantially narrowed Wolf’s lead.
Borick’s latest poll, dated May 1, had Wolf leading by 25 points, with 33 percent of voters still undecided.
Madonna’s latest poll, dated April 3, that long ago had Wolf up by 26 points.
All four Democrats consistently out-perform Corbett in polls, leading some national pundits to tab him the most vulnerable incumbent governor up for re-election this year. The Fix blog by The Washington Post has rated Corbett the most vulnerable governor each month since last fall even before Wolf jumped to the head of the pack of Democrats.
John Finnerty reports from the CNHI Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.