No question looms larger in Pennsylvania politics than Gov. Tom Corbett’s reelection prospects. Democrats are positively giddy over the possibility of making history and ending the infamous two-term rule. Even some Republican activists have expressed concerns about Corbett’s candidacy. Most of the debate focuses on the governor’s low job performance standing–hovering in the 30 to 40 percent positive range. The fact is that nobody really knows whether Corbett can win a second term.
The variables are many: 1) the health of the overall economy, 2) the success or failure of his agenda, 3) the fiscal situation of the state, 4) the infamous 6-year itch plaguing the party that holds the presidency, 5) the strengths and weaknesses of potential rivals—just to mention five. My writing partner, Mike Young, and I wrote a column recently analyzing a few of the important aspects in play. In this blog, I extend our argument by looking at what recent history tells us about the reelection of Pennsylvania governors.
The first governor to be eligible for reelection to a second term, Milton Shapp, had to get not one but two income taxes through the legislature after the first one was declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court. Adding to the tax unpopularity, Shapp was not arguably the most liberal governor in modern state history, which fueled talk of a primary challenge from two city mayors, the popular mayor of Pittsburgh Pete Flaherty and Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo. Neither of them filed against Shapp. In the end, he easily won reelection over Drew Lewis by 300,000 votes, aided by the resignation of President Nixon, who faced certain impeachment in the wake of the infamous Watergate cover-up. All in all, a bad year for Republicans–the 6 year itch held true.
One of his successors, Bob Casey, had enormous difficulties with the legislature early in his tenure. He arrived in Harrisburg with an attitude of disdain for the legislature, vowing to change the way business was conducted there. In his first year, he and the legislature rarely agreed on anything. He had come to change the culture and viewed the anti-reform nature of that body with disdain he could not hide. Now,ultimately that did not prevent him from substantial legislative victories, but when tied to some serious health problems, one a quadruple bypass surgery, few would have predicated a one million vote victory over Barbara Hafer after a very difficult start. He was also aided by a good economy, and lucky for him the recession of 1991 struck after his election.
Tom Ridge continued what by now was a reoccurring pattern of a tough beginning for Pa governors. In his first year, he pushed an unpopular school choice proposal and after campaigning against a legislative pay hike, signed one. On the positive side, the governor secured the passage of several dozen crime fighting measures, but that was not sufficient to halt the slide of his job performance. When he took office it had reached the mid 60′s but plummeted to the mid 40′s by the spring of 1996. And so the sobriquet one-term Tom emerged. Yet in his 1998 reelection year, his numbers had catapulted back to the mid 60′s. He also drew a weak Democratic opponent, Ivan Itkin, a state house member from Pittsburgh who managed to lose by a whopping by 27 points. Ridge benefited from low unemployment, an expanding economy, and Republican control of the state legislature during his time in office.
A similar situation confronted Ed Rendell. After defeating Attorney General Mike Fisher by nine points in 2002, Rendell, facing a budget deficit during his first year in office, pushed for an income tax hike which he secured just days before Christmas, missing the constitutional deadline for budget passage by more than five months. But remarkably in 2005, the year before he would stand for reelection, Rendell supported and signed into law the most unpopular pay hike in modern state history. His job performance slid to the mid-40′s, a ten point decline for him. Yet, in 2006, he defeated Lynn Swann by 21 points. Not arguably Rendell was a brilliant campaigner. He was assisted by the six-year itch, and the unpopularity of the Iraq war—which helped the Democrats win sweeping victories in Congress, regain control of the Pennsylvania House, and pick up four congressional seats in the state.
It is also relevant that Dick Thornburgh, the governor with the highest popularity and public support in his first year, had the toughest reelection in recent state history. His opponent was Alan Ertel, a little known congressman, and the election took place in the midst of the 1982 recession, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. He could only squeak out a narrow 100,000 vote victory–another testimony to the power of the economy in determining electoral fate.
And so, history tells us that gubernatorial job performance and reelection prospects can rise and fall pretty quickly. At this writing, there are 16 months until the primary and 22 months until the general election. There is really only one conclusion: Corbett’s prospects for victory are really still to be fully determined. If he wins, he will have come back from a historically low job performance. If he is victorious, he will confirm the efficacy of the two-term rule.
(Polling sources: Millersville University Keystone Poll and Franklin & Marshall College Poll.)
Professor of Public Affairs, Franklin & Marshall College; and Director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs and the Franklin & Marshall College Poll