Despite failed agenda, Gov. Wolf escapes voter wrath
Will Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf win a second term in the rapidly approaching 2018 statewide election?
Or will he become another “one term Tom,” losing his bid for a second term, as did his immediate predecessor, Republican Tom Corbett.
Since a constitutional change in 1968 permitted governors to seek a second term, each has done so, beginning with Milton Shapp in 1974. And all but one, Corbett in 2014, won reelection, most of them handily.
Polls are of limited use this early. Wolf, however, does not face any opposition to a second Democrat nomination in the scheduled May party primary.
On the other hand, he has attracted a field of four GOP challengers so far including state Sen. Scott Wagner, House Speaker Mike Turzai, attorney Laura Ells- worth, and businessman Paul Mango. Wolf has had a bullseye painted on his back since being tagged as America’s “most liberal governor.”
In this decidedly mixed milieu, three fundamental political factors are going to matter most: the national mood; the importance of “change” to voters; and the Wolf record.
Wolf’s reelection campaign will play out against the background of the 2018 national midterms. At the moment, this background appears unusually toxic for Republicans.
One negative for the GOP is the traditional midterm bias against the president’s party. Historically, the ruling party in Washington has lost 30 House seats and four Senate seats in midterms going back to the 1930’ s.
Then, too, Trump’s historically low approval ratings loom por- tentously.
Many analysts believe a Democratic “tide” is possible, one which would sweep away many GOP incumbents.
But the national mood is neither static nor predictable. With the 2018 election still more than ten months away much can happen to shift support toward Republicans.
This year, the four Pennsylvania Republicans challenging Tom Wolf sound similar themes, contending that Wolf is just another liberal, tax- and- spend Democrat. One of them, Wagner, is running as an unabashed Trump supporter.
Every election is a referendum on the incumbent, and this one will be no exception. Wolf’s record is largely encapsulated within four years of battles with the GOP dominated legislature over budgets, deficits, taxes and spending.
Wolf has not shied away from proposing increases in statewide taxes such as the income tax, and more consistently a Marcellus shale tax to deal with the state’s multibillion- dollar deficits.
For Wolf’s first three years, this produced annual impasses between a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor — resulting in late budgets, underfunded or unfunded programs, and a morass of short term accounting gimmicks needed to “balance” the state’s budget.
By any fair measure, these perennial fiscal gunfights have ended in a bloody draw — with Republicans blocking any significant new taxes - while Democrats led by Wolf have kept state government’s lights on, but they been frustrated in advancing other priority programs.
While Wolf has, Houdini– like, escaped voter wrath for the fiscal hijinks pervading Harrisburg, he has also failed to substantially advance anything that could be called a coherent agenda.
Divided government in Pennsylvania has produced governmental paralysis, presenting perhaps Wolf’s largest threat to reelection. More than three years of virtual trench warfare with GOP legislators has produced more than three years of stalemated state government.
Wolf’s great good luck could be that apparently many Pennsylvanians like that just fine. G. Terry Madonna is professor of public affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Michael Young is a former professor of politics and public affairs at Penn State University and managing partner of Michael Young Strategic Research.