2010 Gov Race Shaping Up To Be A Lot Like 1978

Posted on February 17, 2010. Filed under: General Politics, PA Executive Branch |

The Republican nominee for governor is a law-and-order prosecutor from Western Pennsylvania who is fighting state scandals in Harrisburg.  The main Democrats seeking the gubernatorial nomination are running to the right of the incumbent governor on tax and spending issues, making sure voters know fiscal discipline is the new “en vogue”.  And the governor’s favored choice to succeed him is not the leading Democrat in the race according to polls.  Believe it or not but the year we described is the 1978 election for governor, not 2010. 

If you want a glimpse into the governor’s race this year, 1978 is a good crystal ball.

 This year, Tom Corbett, the frontrunner for the GOP nomination for governor, is a State Attorney General from Western Pennsylvania fighting corruption scandals in Harrisburg, while in 1978 Republican gubernatorial nominee Dick Thornburgh was a federal U.S. Attorney from Pittsburgh fighting mounting corruption and state scandals in the then-Shapp Administration.

 This year the Democratic nominee for governor is likely to be from Western PA (either Auditor General Jack Wagner or Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato), just like former Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty was the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in 1978.  This year, both Wagner and Onorato are campaigning to the right of Governor Rendell on tax and spending issues just like Flaherty campaigned to the right of Shapp in 1978. Last year, Auditor General Wagner even went out of his way to release his own blue print for how to balance the state budget by identifying millions of dollars in fraud and waste in state agencies, almost as if he took this page directly from the GOP playbook.

 And it appears Governor Rendell’s favored choice for governor – Dan Onorato – is not the leading Democrat in the race according to polling (most show Wagner more competitive with Tom Corbett than Onorato), just like Shapp’s favored candidate for the Democratic nomination in ’78 was his Lt. Governor at the time, Ernie Kline.

 History also favors the Republicans similar to 1978.  The 8-year cycle of alternating between 8 years of Republican governors followed by 8 years of Democratic governors started after the 1954 election with a Democratic governor and has continued to the present.  This year it’s the GOP’s turn to replace 8 years of Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, just like Thornburgh replaced 8 years of a Democratic Shapp Administration in 1978. 

 Despite all these similarities however, there are differences between 1978 and this year which could make it interesting depending on your perspective.  

 For one, the GOP is fairly united behind frontrunner Tom Corbett (he recently received the overwhelming endorsement from the Republican State Committee), while in 1978 Republicans had an open primary with 7 candidates and Thornburgh won with only 32.5% of the vote. 

 Moreover, Tom Corbett is being challenged for the GOP nomination by conservative state lawmaker Sam Rohrer.  If Corbett wins the nomination but without support from conservatives including “Tea Party” activists who are fueling Rohrer’s candidacy it could have a dampening effect on Corbett’s numbers if he doesn’t win them back in November.  Early evidence of this intra-party spat is that U.S. Senate GOP frontrunner Pat Toomey has publicly ducked the question of whether or not he is endorsing Corbett until after the nomination is wrapped up. 

 Second, our January polling shows Tom Corbett with a 44/28 lead over Rendell-favored candidate Dan Onorato in a hypothetical match-up while in 1978 Thornburgh trailed Flaherty right up until Election Day.  In fact, a late September Gallup poll that year had Flaherty winning by a 51/36 margin.  This year Corbett’s early lead is partly due to his superior name ID over his competitors while in 1978 Thornburgh started the race with only 20% name identification.  However, despite Corbett’s lead the race is still up for grabs in the Philadelphia suburbs since none of the main frontrunners on either side can call this area their home.

 Perhaps most the most important differences deal with voter turnout and the state of the economy.  Voter turnout for the governor’s race this year will be largely affected by a hotly-contested race for U.S Senate which will have national implications.  This means higher turnout from minorities and younger voters who normally only vote in presidential years could help the Democrat nominee rack up margins in the state’s urban centers.  Unfortunately for Democrats lack of turnout from these groups cost the Democrats victories in governor races in Virginia and New Jersey last year and in this year’s upset U.S. Senate race in Massachusetts, so voter turnout with these groups this year is still a big question mark.  By comparison, in 1978 no U.S. Senate race was on the ballot to drive turnout and Thornburgh did relatively well among African Americans, losing Philadelphia by only 35,000 votes (partly due to a backlash against the Democratic mayor at the time over a controversial voter referendum on the ballot).

 In terms of the state economy, unemployment is currently at historically high levels whereas in 1978 the job climate was fairly robust for PA standards at the time.  High unemployment this year is contributing to a political environment that is favorable to Republicans because polls show voters are unhappy with many of President Obama’s economic policies.  However, it also means voters could be more likely to pick a candidate for governor who has an executive-type background as a CEO, which could favor someone like Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato over someone with a prosecutor’s background like Tom Corbett.  And if the economy improves markedly by the end of the year, it could help Democrats both nationally and in Pennsylvania particularly if the President’s job approval score rebounds before November.

 Unlike 1978 however, the real wild card this year in the governor’s race is Attorney General Corbett’s prosecution of legislative corruption in Harrisburg and if Corbett wins convictions of lawmakers of both political parties it will further cement his image as a bipartisan prosecutor making it much more difficult for the Democrats to beat him.

 So while 1978 gives us a good road map to follow, recent events like the outcome of the attorney general’s legislative corruption investigation, the state of the economy and the impact of the U.S. Senate race on voter turnout will help shape the outcome in November.

 Research for this article was provided by SP&R Senior Consultant Steve Dull and Pennsylvania Politics Today and Yesterday, a book authored by former Capitol historian Paul Beers.

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2 Responses to “2010 Gov Race Shaping Up To Be A Lot Like 1978”

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Allegheny County lost 20,000 jobs last year alone and has substantially fewer jobs than it did when Mr. Onorato took office six years ago. How is that a plus?

This totally underplays the groundswell of grassroots support that Rohrer is getting for the Republican nomination. Not only is he getting support from Tea parties and liberty groups, the backlash from the State GOP’s endorsement of Corbett is causing many County GOPs to vote for an open primary and pass out literature and petitions for BOTH candidates.

The people will decide who is the next GOP governor candidate. And when the see their choices, they will vote for Sam Rohrer, the proven conservative.


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