Nothing excites the political community more than speculating about the next election. Given that 2013 is the low profile point in the political cycle — basically county row offices and municipal elections — the void has been filled with talk about next year's marquee race — that for Governor of Pennsylvania.
Penn's Woods is home to a phenomenon known as the eight-year cycle. It refers to the fact that since the state constitution was altered in the late 1960s allowing governors to succeed themselves, all have been re-elected. It began with Milton Shapp, continued with Dick Thornburgh, Bob Casey, Tom Ridge and Ed Rendell. Note also the party affiliation of governors has changed every eight years with greater regularity than Barack Obama issues executive orders.
Given that history the pending re-election campaign of Governor Tom Corbett should draw little more than a passing glance from politicos. But 2014 is shaping up to be something different. Tom Corbett inherited a financial mess of historic proportions and went about putting Pennsylvania's fiscal house in order. That required a series of unpopular decisions, which the governor made. The result has been elimination of the state's structural debt, and two consecutive on-time, balanced budgets with no tax hikes.
But that accomplishment has come at a considerable political cost. Corbett's job approval ratings are abysmal, with only 38% of voters in a recent statewide poll giving him a positive rating — among women only 30% offered a thumbs-up. Numbers like that have prompted several prominent Democrats who may otherwise have been content to wait until 2018 when the seat is open, to consider challenging Corbett next year.
Corbett also faces a potential primary challenge from Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce Castor who is tapping into dis-satisfaction with the governor from the Right. Thus Tom Corbett has achieved something rare in Pennsylvania politics: alienating both sides of the political spectrum simultaneously. The Left is unhappy with spending cuts, and the Right has run out of patience with the slow to non-existent pace of reform.
If the election were held today Corbett would be political toast. But the fact is the election is not being held today. At this point in his first term Tom Ridge was derisively referred to as "one term Tommy." He rebounded to score a landslide re-election win, albeit aided by a lackluster opponent. Corbett likely won't have that luxury, but he still has a year in which to change the political narrative.
That can be accomplished by scoring major legislative victories this year. Newt Gingrich advised candidates to find a popular issue, stand beside it and bask in the reflected glory. Tom Corbett appears ready to just that by making a major push to privatize the state's antiquated liquor store system. Poll after poll has shown such a move enjoys widespread public support. The problem is that organized labor — viewed as political Kryptonite by the governor and legislature — is willing fight to the death to keep that from happening. But on this issue, Governor Corbett seems willing to finally engage in battle against the unions.
It is a battle he must win. He also must come to grips in a meaningful way with the state's transportation infrastructure funding short-fall. And not just by raising taxes, but by also reforming Prevailing Wage laws and reducing regulations to make highway and bridge-building more affordable. He also faces some highly unpopular legislative heavy lifting in the need to address the growing public pension crisis.
In short, Tom Corbett must prove his ability to lead on a wide variety of issues between now and the end of October. That is his political window. Because after October the General Assembly will kick back into election mode and the chances of any significant legislation passing become remote. And, anything the governor does after that point will be seen by the electorate as crass political maneuvering.
Almost as important as what the governor accomplishes over the next ten months is how he does it. His team has been adept at turning positives into negatives. A prime example of this is the recent privatization of the Pennsylvania Lottery system. Opponents quickly defined the terms of the debate allowing such falsehoods such as if it ain't broke (which it is) why fix it; and this was done quietly and quickly with no opportunity for input: it wasn't. The administration was left to play defense when it should have been on offense. This too must change if the political dynamic is to be altered.
So, as George H.W. Bush said recently about premature reports of his own demise: "Put the harps back in the closet." Many variables will unfold in 2013 that will change the political landscape of next year's gubernatorial election. The only question is can Tom Corbett benefit from those changes?
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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