Voters saddle Gov. Corbett with dismal midterm grade

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Since a 1968 constitutional revision allowed Pennsylvania governors to seek a second term, every one of them has, and all five have been successful.

Gov. Tom Corbett has said he intends to keep the two-term tradition alive, but poll numbers released last week underscore the possibility that he could break that winning streak.

A Public Policy Polling survey noted that voters gave him some of the lowest approval numbers of any incumbent the organization has tested across the country. Although his decision to sue the National Collegiate Athletic Association over the draconian sanctions it imposed on Penn State University has proved popular with the state's voters (despite widespread condemnation by editorial boards), the support for his legal decision has not translated to a boost in his personal popularity. According to the archives of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll, his midterm job performance numbers were the lowest approval of any recent Pennsylvania governor.

But for the Shaler Republican, the political and economic numbers of 2014 could end up presenting a different picture. The two-term gubernatorial lock that has held fast in the state in recent decades was accompanied by another pattern broken only in the administration of Gov. Dick Thornburgh. Since the election of Democrat Robert P. Casey in 1986, every incumbent governor sought re-election with the benefit of an improving economy. Mr. Casey, former Gov. Tom Ridge, and former Gov. Ed Rendell all faced the voters for the second time in a state with a lower unemployment rate than when they took office.

Mr. Thornburgh wasn't so lucky. He took office in 1978 with a state unemployment rate of 6.8 percent. In his first term, he won high marks for reforming PennDOT and dealing with the nuclear crisis at Three Mile Island, but that was just barely enough to overcome the drag of a plunging economy.

Amid a deep national economic downturn, the state's unemployment rate shot up to 12.5 percent by the time he faced Democratic Rep. Alan Ertel in 1982. Although Mr. Ertel was underfunded and initially little known statewide, he came within about 100,000 votes of ousting the Republican.

While it's impossible to know for sure -- the current recovery could be derailed by Washington budget brinkmanship or other outside factors -- it seems more possible that by 2014, Mr. Corbett will join the string of Pennsylvania incumbents boosted by an economic tailwind.

If so, that would be the second election in a row in which the economy, in contrasting ways, boosted Mr. Corbett's political fortunes. In 2010, it was a bad economy that aided his candidacy, as he rode the wave of discontent that boosted GOP candidates all over the country.

Penn State looms large

G. Terry Madonna, the Franklin & Marshall political scientist and pollster, pointed out in a 2011 essay that all of Mr. Corbett's modern predecessors except Mr. Thornburgh had rough first years reflected in falling job approval numbers before surging to easy re-elections. So there are ample recent precedents for a Pennsylvania governor rebounding from weak numbers. But there are powerful factors on the other side of the handicapping ledger as well, the Penn State issue prominent among them.

The PPP poll found that the general approval of Mr. Corbett's NCAA challenge didn't translate to support for his handling of the issue overall, with a clear majority disapproving of his performance on the Jerry Sandusky scandal, in which the former Penn State assistant football coach was found guilty on child sexual abuse charges. Mr. Corbett initiated the investigation of Sandusky as state attorney general before he was elected governor, and he has been criticized for taking too long in bringing charges in the case. It's difficult to forecast how lasting that damage will be.

Mr. Corbett's NCAA lawsuit will earn more headlines for the case at some point. Attorney General-elect Kathleen Kane, a Democrat, assailed the governor's handling of the issue throughout her campaign last year, and her plan to appoint a prosecutor to review the investigation promises to add to its political shelf life.

Mr. Corbett has said repeatedly that he's confident that his actions on the case as attorney general as well as in his current office will withstand the scrutiny.

Coming into office in a struggling economy, Mr. Corbett signed successive budgets that held the tax line but imposed difficult cuts in some popular programs, including education. If a slow but steady national recovery were to continue, the budget pressure on his administration could ease. But the governor's pledge to initiate long-deferred reforms in the state's underfunded pension systems carries clear political risk.

Another unknown in the Corbett re-election equation is whether he will have to fight a Republican primary. In the modern era, no incumbent governor has faced more than token opposition for renomination, but one prominent Republican, Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce Castor, already has raised the possibility of a challenge.

In a recent interview, Mr. Castor argued that Mr. Corbett's poll numbers at this point are worse than former Sen. Rick Santorum's were in the year before his landslide 2006 loss to Sen. Bob Casey.

"Everyone knew he was going down to defeat," Mr. Castor said of Mr. Santorum while arguing that the 2006 race should be a lesson to the GOP for 2014.

Possible challengers

Last week's PPP numbers found that Mr. Corbett, at this point, was well ahead of a potential Castor challenge, but the survey had other ominous notes for the incumbent.

Mr. Castor, with little statewide name recognition among GOP voters, trailed Mr. Corbett, 51 percent to 11 percent, but 38 percent said they were undecided on the hypothetical matchup. But when asked whether they would like to see Mr. Corbett as their nominee next year, just 45 percent said yes, while 37 percent said they would prefer someone else and 11 percent said they were undecided.

A primary would be expensive and could force Mr. Corbett to the right to secure his base in a state with a significant Democratic registration advantage.

Mr. Castor, who publicly criticized Mr. Corbett's NCAA litigation, said he was not ready to make a decision on the race but would continue to actively consider it.

"The recent activity has taken my thinking to a new level," he said. "I'm certainly not ready to jump in beyond ankle-deep, but I'm not toe-deep anymore."

Some senior Republicans are skeptical.

"If he starts circulating nominating petitions, I'll take it more seriously," said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg consultant.

Rob Gleason, the state GOP chairman, dismissed both the likelihood of a intraparty challenge and the suggestion that Mr. Corbett will be vulnerable in a general election.

"I think he's doing a great job; he has the complete support of our state committee," Mr. Gleason said. "The thing that he's got going for him is that the economy is on the upswing."

Of the potential Castor challenge, he said, "I take that with a grain of salt ... there's always this intraparty squabbling in Montgomery County."

He referred to the fact that Mr. Castor has long been at odds with Robert Asher, the Republican national committeeman and a Corbett ally. The influential Mr. Asher opposed Mr. Castor and was a key supporter of Mr. Corbett in the governor's first statewide win, the 2004 race for attorney general.

"I have my radar up all the time and I don't see anybody who's a credible challenger," Mr. Gleason said of the GOP primary picture.

The Democrats have binders full of potential challengers but no clear favorite for their nomination.

John Hanger, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection in the Rendell administration, has already announced his candidacy for the spot. State Treasurer Rob McCord is the focus for speculation for the race, as is Joe Sestak, the retired admiral who lost narrowly to Sen. Pat Toomey on the same 2010 ballot that carried Mr. Corbett to victory.

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Politics Editor James O'Toole: First Published January 13, 2013 5:00 AM


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