Corbett looks vulnerable to going one and done as Pennsylvania governor


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Gov. Tom Corbett is dogged by consistently woeful poll numbers.

Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia scholar and political handicapper, rates him the most vulnerable incumbent governor in the nation. The authoritative Rothenberg Political Report last week moved its rating of his seat's 2014 prospects as "tilts Democratic," while the Washington Post opined that the Pennsylvania governor's mansion was No. 1 in the chances of switching parties next year.

His often rocky relations with Republican leaders in the Legislature were demonstrated anew last month, as the lawmakers failed to pass his three most ardently sought initiatives -- liquor privatization, pension reform and a transportation bill. All those woes have attracted a long line of Democratic challengers who are expected to battle each other in a crowded primary in May.

But despite his apparent jeopardy, and the possibility that Mr. Corbett's daunting prospects could affect Republicans farther down the ballot, one threat that he's escaped so far is a challenge from within his own party. He faces no GOP rivals for renomination.

There's still time for that to change, but not much time, given the logistical demands of mounting a statewide campaign.

Why does Mr. Corbett appear to enjoy continued support from his party's establishment?

"He's done what he said he was going to do," said Rob Gleason, the state Republican chairman.

He points to Mr. Corbett's on-time budgets and his resistance to spending as evidence of his appeal to the party's base. And Mr. Gleason insists that he likes Mr. Corbett's chances with the public at large next year, predicting that an improved economy will boost his chances along with other incumbents.

Bruce Castor, a Montgomery County commissioner, is the only Republican who has publicly flirted with the idea of a challenge. After several months of exploring the prospect, he announced in May that he was abandoning that possibility. But he still thinks that his party's loyalty to Mr. Corbett will end in defeat and frustration.

"The party refuses to admit that they are wrong and they're going to continue to march behind Gov. Corbett and I predict that they are going to be marching over the cliff," Mr. Castor said last week.

"If I had run they would have spent $20 million to beat me," he said. "Then I would have been the one blamed for the Republicans losing the incumbent seat. I'm not going to spend the next year of my life being a punching bag for the Republican Party ... the Republican Party retaliates viciously against anyone who goes against them."

Mr. Castor predicts that his party is headed for a replay of 2006, when former Sen. Rick Santorum was felled by Democratic Sen. Bob Casey.

"I said in 2005 that we're going to spend $30 million and lose by 20 points. Anyone with two contiguous brain cells could see that," he said. "It's going to be the same thing all over again."

Terry Madonna, whose Franklin & Marshall College polling institute has been among those documenting the governor's popularity deficit, said that the governor continues to enjoy the support of many business leaders. And he noted that in other states across the country, where GOP civil wars have become an increasingly more frequent phenomenon, establishment figures have typically been challenged by more conservative insurgents. At least so far, Mr. Corbett's conservative positions on issues such as abortion and gay marriage have helped insulate him against challenges from his right flank.

Keith Schmidt, a consultant who was Mr. Santorum's state legislative director, said there was "no chance" that Mr. Corbett, who has said he plans to seek re-election, would not be the party's nominee.

"There's absolute anger with Corbett in a lot to circles," he acknowledged, but added, "You still can't beat somebody with nobody. In the end there will be no serious challenger to Corbett and even if one showed up, he would win with 80 percent of the primary vote. Loyalty to the Republican Party is the diamond standard."

There hasn't been a serious primary challenge to a sitting GOP governor in recent years. Gov. Dick Thornburgh came close to being ousted in the general election, but despite a terrible economy, was unchallenged in his re-election primary. In 2004, the late Sen. Arlen Specter was deeply unpopular with the party's conservative base but with the support of the party's establishment, he still survived a credible, reasonably well-funded primary challenge from Pat Toomey, who would go on to win the seat six years later.

With Mr. Castor out of the picture, there is no obvious challenger waiting in the Republican wings. Democrats swept the statewide row offices in 2012. Republicans dominate the state's congressional delegation, but any of them would be taking a major risk in walking away from seats made safer for them in the last redistricting in favor of an intra-party challenge.

Two members of that group, Rep. Pat Meehan of Delaware County and Rep. Jim Gerlach of Chester County, explored runs for governor four years ago before switching their sights to House races. A spokesman for Mr. Gerlach said he expects to be in the Corbett camp next year.

"Jim Gerlach expects Tom Corbett to be our nominee and he will support him," said Vince Galko. But he added that, "In the event that things change, Congressman Gerlach would give serious consideration to the changing dynamics; however, at this point, he expects him to run."

The "changing dynamics," he noted, referred to speculation, which Mr. Corbett has dismissed as "totally wrong," that he might voluntarily step down after his first term.

Tom Smith, the Armstrong County businessman who ran against Sen. Bob Casey in 2012, invested millions in boosting his statewide name recognition in that race. In that year's primary, he bucked Mr. Corbett, who had engineered the party's endorsement of another Senate candidate. But he said last week that he was solidly behind the governor's re-election.

"If he chooses to run, and he told me he would, I would support Gov. Corbett," he said. "I think the base is still there for Gov. Corbett; he's done a lot of good things."

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Politics editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562. First Published July 14, 2013 4:00 AM


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