It was a fight everyone wanted to join. The democratic gubernatorial nomination process attracted some familiar faces and relative unknowns from all over Pennsylvania ready to debate each other—politely, at first—with the grand prize being a shot at unseating unpopular Governor Tom Corbett in November. It was a match the Democrat, no matter who s/he was, would be likely to win.
There were debates. And for the most part, all eight Democrats—Allyson Schwartz, Rob McCord, Tom Wolf, Katie McGinty, Max Myers, John Hanger, Ed Pawlowski and Jo Ellen Litz—seemed to agree on the core issues. They were pro-severance tax on fracking, pro-medical marijuana and decriminalization. They wanted to step up school funding, update—but not eliminate—the liquor system, and expand Medicaid to poor Pennsylvanians, as outlined by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.
There were emails to voters. Lots of them. They asked for cash. They exclaimed via subject heads: “I can’t believe this” (a Dec. 31 Allyson Schwartz campaign email regarding “a fundraising report”). They had questions: “Hey, can we chat?” (a Jan. 10 Wolf campaign email regarding a debate). They gave us some welcome news: “Advisory: Hanger ‘Legalize Marijuana’ Billboards Unveiled (a Jan. 27 Hanger email regarding, well, those billboards). They linked us back to the candidates’ Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and Youtube channels.
There were polls. Schwartz led most of them throughout 2013, likely due to her name recognition and media frontrunner status. The last poll of the year, conducted by Public Policy Polling, found her leading the pack, with 21 percent of the vote; followed by Pittsburgh City Councilman Jack Wagner, with 17 percent; then state Treasurer McCord, at 10; McGinty at 9; former environmental secretary Hanger at 8; and everyone else—including Wolf—nabbing 4 percent or less. The positive for those 4 percent and under: 27 percent of Pennsylvanians were undecided, and Wagner hadn’t officially joined the race.
Just a few weeks into the new year, that lack of enthusiasm seen in the polls was about to change. The last week of January, Wolf, the former treasurer of the state under Gov. Ed Rendell, released his first commercial with a small portion of the $10 million of the personal fortune he lent himself.
The one-minute spot, titled “Meet Tom,” introduces him in a way that everyone can understand: By recounting the positive highlights of his life. Wolf grew up in central Pa.; he was in the Peace Corps, “and then he went to MIT,” notes his daughter, Katie, in the ad, “where he earned his Ph.D.” Wolf grew his family business into the largest supplier of kitchen cabinets in the United States, and he shares “20-30 percent” of profits with his employees. “I’ve always thought that when our company does well, so should our workers,” Wolf says earnestly.
PoliticsPA.com reported that the “Meet Tom” commercial cost the Wolf campaign $370,000 and hit every broadcast market in the commonwealth, plus cable. The clip aired during the uber-important 7pm hour, in which old people (i.e. voters) watch Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune. “Television will likely be a major tool in the Wolf campaign,” PoliticsPA wrote of the ad buy. “He doesn’t have the name recognition of some of the other candidates, but he has an unparalleled bank account.”
The next poll, released February 24 and conducted by Harper, saw Wolf take a commanding lead ahead of all other candidates. In two months, Wolf went from less than four percent of the vote to 40 percent. The next highest candidate was Schwartz, at 14 percent, but she still trailed “Not sure” by five points.
The next two polls—conducted by Franklin & Marshall and The Morning Call—found Wolf leading his next opponent by, respectively, 31 points and 25 points.
As this is being written, Wolf is still in the lead, by far—despite harsh attacks by Schwartz and McCord, the latter of whom tied him to a white race-riot defendant in York—proving when you lend yourself $10 million of your own money to run a gubernatorial campaign in Pennsylvania (plus have already spent $5 million on advertising through March, and, in the closing weeks of the campaign, is rumored to be spending $1 million per week), anything’s possible.
This is, of course, not unique. In 2012, the state’s GOP field for U.S. Senate began almost as crowded in light of the potential to take on a weak, meek U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. The Pennsylvania Democrat had written no legislation that became law since taking office five years prior, had voted with President Obama in lockstep, and was pretty much perceived as a dud—even by U.S. Senate standards.
The GOP was eager to sink its teeth into him, as candidates for the Republican primary took their shots, tied him to the president, and, during one debate, made fun of him for having once walked through the streets of Philadelphia and not been recognized. (Which, if true, is totally worthy of ridicule.)
In that race, relative unknown candidate Tom Smith, who ran a coal mine in Western Pennsylvania and has an estimated net worth of $60 to $70 million, lent himself $6.8 million. He ran more commercials than anyone else, then defeated state party-backed candidate Steve Welch and Tea Party-backed candidate Sam Rohrer. Smith lent himself another $10 million during the last month of the general election against Casey, but it wasn’t good enough. The candidate who’d been able to woo the base of the Pennsylvania Republican Party months earlier couldn’t convince voters he was ready for prime time.
Studies show that winning candidates outspend their opponents 91 percent of the time—no surprise there—and elections are getting a hell of a lot more expensive. In Florida, for instance, Tea Party candidate Rick Scott won the 2010 gubernatorial race by pumping $85 million into the campaign, $73 million of which was his own. The record up until that point was $24.6 million.
Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg put a whopping $109 million into his 2009 campaign, which he barely won; Corbett raised just under $30 million during his 2010 election to rule the commonwealth; Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both spent about $1 billion on their last presidential race.
Money isn’t just really important for winning. It’s also coming from weird, oft-shady places. Corbett, for instance, received $6 million from the Republican Governor’s Association during his first campaign, $1.5 million of which was both untraceable and 100-percent legal. In general, less than one percent of Americans contribute about 68 percent of all election funding.
The other thing going on here: 2014 is an off-year election. Voters are less likely to pay attention and less likely to turn out. About 6 million voters turned out to vote in Pennsylvania in 2008, when Barack Obama was on the ballot; two years later, about half of them cast a ballot. And then-Attorney General Tom Corbett easily won his race after taking millions of dollars from both natural gas interests and still-untraceable sources laundered through the Republican Governors Association.
Pennsylvania is one of just 11 states with minimal or no limits on campaign finance. You can give as much as you want to individuals in this state, and as often as you want. Watchdog groups like Common Cause PA have pushed for changes like better disclosure, contribution limits, bans on using funds for personal expenses, but it’s fallen upon deaf ears in the General Assembly. Over eight years, Gov. Ed Rendell could not garner enough bipartisan support to change the system, and even today, while all candidates have openly spoken of favoring campaign finance reform, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anyone actually doing anything about it.
During a late February debate, Wolf noted he had a “very special perspective on this”—considering he’d lent his campaign so much money already—and basically took the same stance then-Senator Barack Obama took in the 2008 elections: Hate the game, not the player.
“I’m playing by the rules of the game as it exists right now, but I really don’t like those rules, and if I were elected governor I would do everything in my power to change those rules and make sure that money is not as important as it is right now,” he told attendees at the Pennsylvania Progressive Summit.
Being best prepared has allowed Wolf to run away as the Democratic frontrunner, and unless something dramatic occurs between now and May 20, he’ll be the candidate. And, very likely, a good one. But financing your own campaign with tens of millions of dollars just seems undemocratic, almost oligarchical. Because likely here in Pennsylvania—like 91 percent of congressional races around the country—the gubernatorial candidate with the most money, wins.
Each year, the local good-government group the Committee of 70 puts together an election guide for those among us who haven’t been following the candidates all through campaign season. This week’s May 20 primary is no different, so if you’re looking for some basics on who and what you could be voting for, check them out at Seventy.org. Just click on “2014 Election” to find a breakdown of the candidates and questions upon which you may care to take a stand. Some will vary upon where you live: State Senator, State Representative, City Committeeperson and U.S. Representative. And then there are the ones we’ll all be voting for: Governor, Lt. Governor, the at-Large City Council seat, and ballot questions—including one on the issue of “resign to run,” another on raising the minimum wage for city contractors (which Mayor Nutter has already done by executive order) and a third on changing the charter for city contracts.
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