Just a little more than three weeks ago, Tom Wolf came in a distant third as the Democratic State Committee considered whether to endorse a candidate for governor.
The most recent public poll at that point had put his support among the party's voters at 2 percent.
But afterwards, Mr. Wolf's press secretary was a study in serenity as he assessed the state of the race.
"Tom is not a conventional candidate,'' Mark Nicastre told a handful of reporters at the rear of a crowded ballroom at the Hershey Hotel in Dauphin County. "We're going to go home and turn on the TV and see Tom's television ads, and we're happy where we are.''
On the evidence, lots of other Democrats saw those ads as well. By the end of a month in which the wealthy York businessman was essentially alone on the state's airwaves, he was also alone atop the big Democratic field. One survey last week put his support at 40 percent; another at 36 percent. No one else was close.
In a Public Policy polling survey in late November, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz of Montgomery County had an early lead in the Democratic field while Mr. Wolf was barely more than an asterisk. The numbers then were Ms. Schwartz, 21 percent; former state Auditor General Jack Wagner, 17; state Treasurer Rob McCord, 10; former DEP Secretary Katie McGinty, 9; and former DEP Secretary John Hanger, 8. Mr. Wolf was stuck at 2 percent along with Lebanon County Commissioner Jo Ellen Litz, and Max Myers, who has since left the race.
A Harper Polling survey last week found a very different political universe. Mr. Wolf's 40 percent support was nearly three times that of his closest competitor, Ms. Schwartz, who came in at 14 percent.
Mr. Wolf was able to steal a march on his rivals because, with $10 million of his own money providing the bulk of a campaign fund more than twice the size of anyone else's, he could afford to. The other most prominent contenders weren't caught off guard by the early spending, but they made the difficult calculation that despite the Wolf surge, the best use of their television budgets was to wait to pull the advertising trigger until they were closer to the May 20 primary. In the meantime, the Wolf ratings points continue to pile up.
The situation may be wearing on them. In an interview on Pittsburgh's public radio station WESA last week -- the audio clip was helpfully emailed to reporters by another campaign -- Mr. McCord never mentioned Mr. Wolf by name, but he was clearly the target as Mr. McCord bemoaned the effects on the party of the working class of self-funding candidates who could afford to drop $10 million of their own money, turning an election into an "auction.''
At a debate in Harrisburg Friday evening, however, there were a couple of seemingly light-hearted references to his heavy spending, but nothing that came close to a real attack on the new front-runner.
Questioned last Thursday about his earlier remark on WESA, Mr. McCord seemed intent on quashing any suggestion of ill feelings.
Calling his opponent, "a good personal friend,'' Mr. McCord backtracked a bit.
"Let me try to say what I meant to say,'' he said with a smile. "[I was] making a point, pretty sure similar to the one Tom has made. In this imperfect finance world, it probably isn't great if you have somebody who's close to entirely self funding. ... That said, I'm a big believer in the no whining rule. You know, we're not going to have campaign finance reform before May 20. I salute everybody who's willing to engage in this process ... and as far as I know we're all playing by the rules.''
Lax laws let lucre flow
Those rules, under Pennsylvania's notoriously lax campaign finance laws, allow unlimited contributions to political candidates. And since the 1976 Supreme Court ruling Buckley v. Valeo, states and the federal government have been barred from limiting a candidate's spending on his or her own race.
Lawmakers at the state and federal levels have tried to find a way around that landmark ruling in the years since, proposing a variety of public financing systems aimed to level the playing field against wealthy self-funders.
The Supreme Court has been skeptical on such limits as well. In 2008, the justices struck down a provision of the federal McCain-Feingold legislation that would have lifted contribution limits for candidates facing self-funding opponents. In 2011, the high court struck down an Arizona law that would have provided bonus public financing to candidates facing a self-funder.
At the debate Friday, Ms. McGinty reminded the audience that there is a temporal as well as a financial disadvantage in facing someone who can write a big check to himself. Testifying to the need for campaign finance reform, she complained that she is forced to spend 80 percent of her campaign time on fundraising rather than meeting voters or crafting policy.
Across the country the track record for millionaires willing to invest big dollars in their campaigns is mixed. According to The New York Times, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg spent a total of roughly $263 million on his three winning campaigns for mayor of New York City. In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott is now defending the seat he won with roughly $75 million of his own money in 2010. Another Republican governor, Rick Snyder of Michigan, spent nearly $6 million of his own cash in winning office the same year.
But there's a big roster of millionaire losers as well. Meg Whitman, the eBay billionaire, can write such big checks that they named a college after her at Princeton University. But the $175 million of her own money she spent on the 2010 California governor's race wasn't enough to defeat Gov. Jerry Brown. In successive Connecticut Senate races, Republican Linda McMahon tapped her professional wrestling fortune to contribute just under $100 million to two losing efforts.
In Pennsylvania, Tom Smith, a Tea Party-inspired businessman, spent more than $16 million of his own money on the 2012 Senate race. An outlay of roughly $5 million allowed him to prevail in the GOP primary over the choice of the Republican establishment, but his wealth wasn't enough to overcome Sen. Bob Casey, who won 54 percent to 45 percent.
Of course big spending from personal fortunes is not in any way a new phenomenon in American politics. In 1958, two years before he would win the Democratic nomination and then the presidency, then Sen. John F. Kennedy stood before Washington's Gridiron Club and said, "I have just received the following telegram from my generous daddy. It says, 'Dear Jack, Don't buy a single more vote than is necessary. I'll be damned if I'm going to pay for a landslide.' ''
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562.