Tom Wolf crushed his rivals for the Democratic nomination for governor Tuesday night after promising a fresh start for Pennsylvania in a campaign jump-started by his own spending and his pledge to undo the policies of Gov. Tom Corbett.
He will share his general election ticket with state Sen. Mike Stack of Philadelphia who outdistanced a field of five by nearly as large a margin. The Wolf victory was wide and deep. He led overwhelmingly in every region of the state.
With nearly 70 percent of the vote counted, the first-time candidate appeared to be on a track to finish first in every one of the state's 67 counties, capturing three of every five Democratic votes, more than three times the tally of his closest competitor.
Mr. Wolf's victory over a seemingly strong field of competitors with more extensive political resumes sets the stage for an election that will test the Pennsylvania tradition of rewarding incumbent governors with a second term. That's a pattern that's been unbroken throughout the modern political era in which governors have been allowed to succeed themselves.
Mr. Corbett, who was unopposed for the GOP nomination, continues his re-election drive in the face of daunting poll numbers that fuel the conventional wisdom that he is the most endangered occupant of any governor's mansion in the country.
Mr. Corbett fits a traditional mold for his party. Like every Republican governor elected in the last 50 years, he is a former prosecutor from western Pennsylvania.
Mr. Wolf presents a more novel political profile. In a party dominated by the state's two major urban centers, he hails from the GOP bastion of York County, a fact that didn't hinder his dominance over three fellow Democrats from the Philadelphia suburbs. He coupled spending $10 million of his own money and raising another $4 million with the biography and business background he portrayed in a series of widely praised commercials, allowing him to build the big lead with Democratic voters that remained unchallenged through his rivals' tardier, less robust advertising campaigns.
Mr. Corbett's perceived vulnerability attracted a big Democratic field of would-be challengers that was eventually winnowed down to the four who remained on Tuesday's ballot -- Mr. Wolf, state Treasurer Rob McCord, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, and Katie McGinty, a former state secretary of environmental resources.
They largely agreed on a bundle of issues in opposition to administration polices. They included a call to increase taxes on natural gas drilling, a promise to increase funding for education, and an embrace of the Medicaid expansion available under the often criticized federal health care laws.
The Democrats were also united in opposition to the state's ban on same-sex marriage, the law overturned by a federal judge on Election Day over the opposition of the Corbett administration.
In the absence of major ideological differences, Ms. Schwartz and Mr. McCord tried to reverse Mr. Wolf's momentum with attacks late in the campaign on his business record and his association a legislator convicted in the Bonusgate prosecutions that Mr. Corbett initiated as attorney general. Mr. McCord also assailed the front-runner over political ties with a former York mayor, indicted but acquitted of having been an accomplice to the 1969 murder of a black woman killed in a race riot.
Ms. Schwartz defended the intra-party attacks, asserting that such vetting was a big part of what primaries are for, and predicting that the issues would revisited in still harsher versions in the course of a tough general election campaign. The Corbett campaign has already hit Mr. Wolf with caustic portrayals of the business record that's part of the rosy autobiography offered by first-time candidate.
Mr. Wolf has boasted of how, after serving in the Peace Corps and earning a doctorate from MIT, he bought and expanded a family business, sold it before serving as secretary of revenue in the Rendell administration, then stepped in again to rescue it after it foundered in the Great Recession. The Corbett campaign offers a competing narrative, contending that the firm needed to be rescued because of Mr. Wolf's actions in allowing it to borrow money to purchase his share of its ownership.
Those competing versions of the business record are sure to be litigated throughout the coming months of the campaign.
Polls and even some of his allies suggest that Mr. Corbett starts that campaign as the underdog. In an interview with the Harrisburg Patriot-News last week, U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, decried Republican defeatism.
"Everywhere I go, county party dinners, they all say, 'He can't win,' " Mr. Kelly said.
Despite the poll numbers, however, Mr. Corbett retains considerable assets as he pursues re-election touting the theme, "Promises Kept."
His Democratic predecessor, former Gov. Ed Rendell, has pointed out that any governor has an advantage over an out-of-office challenger in his ability to make and shape news.
Mr. Corbett swept to victory in the general election four years ago, in part because of a Republican wave propelled by the battered economy. He was a beneficiary of a national tide then, and may be again in a year in which surveys consistently find a dispirited Democratic electorate unlikely to turn out in the proportions of a presidential year.
But a still flat economy, friendlier to challengers than incumbents, continues to be a hurdle for Mr. Corbett even as the state's unemployment rate has been ticking lower in each of the last few months. The deliberations of a challenging budget year that will play out over the next six weeks also will be a major factor in shaping the terrain on which he has to defend his tenure.
Money represents another initial advantage for Mr. Corbett after an unchallenged primary. But speaking just a few days before the end of the campaign, Mr. Wolf insisted that though his campaign account might have been depleted through the Democratic battle, he would be able to quickly reload.
"I think money will flow into this race," he said during his last primary swing through Allegheny County. "I think people are going to be alive to the alternative to this austerity, dim agenda. I think the funding is going to be robust.
"The second point to make is that what I have spent, what I have raised -- and I've raised a lot -- is not going to waste. It's not like you spend in the primary and go back to zero. I now have name recognition."
The other Democratic contenders pledged to rally to the effort to unseat the Republican.
In a hotel near Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, Ms. Schwartz smiled as she told supporters she had called Mr. Wolf and offered her help in the campaign against Mr. Corbett. After thanking supporters, she sounded one rueful note as she said her campaign was part of an effort "that there should be a woman governor -- someday -- in Pennsylvania."
But she said the media and the "Harrisburg establishment" did not believe it could be so.
The results represented a stinging setback to a veteran politician who had relinquished her congressional career, betting big on her prospects in this race. Not only was she trailing badly statewide, but she was running behind Mr. Wolf in Montgomery County, the heart of the congressional district that she had represented for a decade.
Her aide, Mark Bergman, said the outcome demonstrated the influence of money in politics.
"Once we were able to begin communicating, a lot of voters had already made up their minds," he said.
Earlier in the evening, Tom Gilmore, a long-time Schwartz supporter from Philadelphia, described Mr. Wolf's vault to the front as "another example of the corrupting power of money."
"I think it's sort of sad to feel how much effort has to go into the fundraising, as opposed to debates and interesting discussion about thoughtful positions on the issues," he said.
But when asked if he would support the Democratic nominee in the November, Mr. Gilmore did not hesitate: "Against Corbett? Absolutely."
Ms. McGinty who had avoided most of the Democratic infighting, hailed "a great campaign," and said, "I want to make it clear right now -- I wholeheartedly endorse Tom Wolf, and I will be all in to help Tom Wolf defeat Tom Corbett in November."
Politics editor James O'Toole: email@example.com or 412-263-1562. Post-Gazette Harrisburg Correspondents Kate Giammarise and Karen Langley contributed. First Published May 20, 2014 9:13 PM