Brian O'Neill: Corbett’s in danger of falling off party cycle

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If Gov. Tom Corbett loses in November, he’ll make the kind of history no politician would seek.

Do you know the last time one party or the other held the Pennsylvania governor’s chair for only four years?

That would be 1935-39, when a Democrat named George Howard Earle III broke what would otherwise have been an unbroken string of Republican governors from 1895 to 1955.

Since the Dems won the 1954 gubernatorial election, the parties have traded the seat back and forth every eight years, no more, no less. If Corbett loses, it would break a pattern that has lasted through 10 governors and 14 elections.

It even predates the change in the state Constitution in 1967 to allow a sitting governor to seek re-election. It’s the political equivalent of Superglue.

Here’s how it looks in eight-year blocks, going back in time:

Ed Rendell, D, 2003-2011

Tom Ridge, R, (with a handoff to Lt. Gov. Mark Schweiker when Mr. Ridge resigned late in 2001 to oversee the federal Office of Homeland Security), 1995-2003

Bob Casey, D, 1987-1995

Dick Thornburgh, R, 1979-1987

Milton Shapp, D, 1971-1979

Raymond P. Shafer, R, 1967-1971; and William Scranton, R, 1963-1967

Davey Lawrence, D, 1959-1963; and George Leader, D, 1955-1959

I reached out to the three surviving two-term governors to discuss this. Mr. Ridge and Mr. Thornburgh were unavailable, but Mr. Rendell answered his own phone.

Mr. Rendell hadn’t realized this pattern went back even before governors could succeed themselves, but he had an explanation for the ones like him who could and did.

For starters, the Pennsylvania system gives the governor a tremendous amount of power and visibility. On top of that, Mr. Rendell said, there’s no limit on campaign contributions.

Yes, boys and girls, big donors love to throw money at pols who already hold the reins of power.

“We’ve had up to now fairly strong leaders,’’ Mr. Rendell added.

Has that pattern stopped with Mr. Corbett? Last month’s Franklin & Marshall College Poll of Pennsylvania registered voters found that 59 percent believed the state was “off on the wrong track.’’ Only one in four (26 percent) believed Gov. Corbett deserves re-election. The survey found him trailing his Democratic challenger, Tom Wolf, 47 to 25 percent.

Fortunately for Mr. Corbett, elections aren’t held in June. Mr. Rendell, obviously, is for Mr. Wolf, who was briefly his secretary of revenue. But he doesn’t think anyone should believe Mr. Wolf is a shoo-in.

Mr. Corbett can do the same things that helped the five two-term governors who preceded him.

“He can for the next three months be governor,’’ Mr. Rendell said. “He can do things to make himself look like a leader.’’

A reader had the same idea, albeit with more cynicism. A man from Stowe wrote me a couple of weeks ago after I praised Mr. Corbett for taking the legislative leaders of his own party to task. The governor cut the legislative budget after the General Assembly failed to enact pension reform.

The reader thought that all a charade, a ruse that goes something like this:

“Corbett spends the summer going all over the commonwealth appearing to be the taxpayers’ champion because the Legislature won’t pass pension reform and help lower school property taxes,’’ he wrote in an email. “The Legislature returns after summer recess and, after some haggling, passes pension reform. Corbett looks like the hero.’’

Mr. Rendell doesn’t buy that. He doesn’t believe GOP leaders in the General Assembly would make themselves look bad for the sake of this governor. “There’s genuine dislike there,’’ Mr. Rendell said.

He does believe that Mr. Corbett can be a formidable foe.

Maybe Mr. Rendell has to say that to energize Democrats, but he also knows better than just about anyone the levers that a Pennsylvania governor can push. Mr. Corbett may not be a hail fellow well met in the halls of the Capitol, but his party controls both houses. That counts for something.

Whether gubernatorial election history dating to the Eisenhower Era counts for anything, we’ll find out on the first Tuesday in November. History repeats itself — until it doesn’t. Then it’s just history.


Brian O’Neill: boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.

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