Among Gop Governors Corbett Of Pa Lags Behind

03.25.14 | Bob Price

Pennsylvania is a big state, but from wherever Republican Gov. Tom Corbett stands, the view is bleak. To the east is New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a GOP star and presidential contender despite his recent troubles over a bridge scandal. On the western border, Ohio Gov. John Kasich suffered a blow when voters repealed his law limiting public-sector unions, but he's still been mentioned as a 2016 possibility along with other GOP governors such as Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

Then there's Corbett, whose 36% approval rating makes him the most unpopular governor in the 13 states the Quinnipiac Poll surveys. Political handicappers rate his race for re-election a tossup or worse: The Rothenberg Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter, gives Corbett the worst odds of all Republican governors up for re-election this year, rating his race "Lean Democrat.'' Corbett could be the first Pennsylvania governor not to win re-election since the state began allowing two-term governors in 1968.

"I think that even the Green Party candidate could probably beat Governor Corbett one-on-one this year.'' says Michael Morrill of Keystone Progress, a liberal advocacy group. A sure sign that the Democratic Party thinks Corbett is beatable: There are seven contenders for the Democratic nomination to oppose him.

Corbett's troubles started early; when faced with a $4.2 billion deficit, his budget cuts forced teacher layoffs and reduced county social services programs. He imposed a limit on assets for people who received food stamps. This year, he proposed expanding Medicaid to cover the uninsured but wanted to require that recipients prove they were searching for work. He has since backed off the proposal.

"He proposed cuts to very popular programs,'' says political scientist G. Terry Madonna of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. "His job performance (approval) drops and he doesn't recover.''

To be sure, other Republican governors elected in the 2010 Tea Party wave have faced trouble. Walker faced a recall — he survived — and Florida Gov. Rick Scott is also in a tough re-election race against his predecessor, Charlie Crist.

But Corbett has suffered in comparison because he has not been able to score significant conservative wins despite having a Republican-controlled legislature, says Grover Norquist, the anti-tax campaigner who got Corbett to sign a no-new-taxes pledge.

Both a pension-reform plan — which next-door New Jersey passed after Christie's forceful advocacy — and a move to privatize state-run liquor stores have stalled in the legislature.

Norquist calls them "lost opportunities" and says Corbett should have pushed the legislature harder, or worked to replace members who didn't cooperate.

"You have this Bulgaria 1956 retail system for liquor,'' Norquist says. "All they (the stores) lack is the picture of El Supremo.''

Corbett did pass a transportation bill to rehabilitate roads and bridges, but he relied on a hike in the gas tax to do so, despite signing a no-new-taxes pledge in 2010 like Kasich and Walker.

"Some of his problems really do start at home, in his own party. There's a palpable sense of disappointment,'' says Christopher Borick, director of the Polling Institute at Muhlenberg College in Bethlehem, Pa. "It's hard to get a lot of momentum in the state when you have liabilities in your own party.''

Republicans say that it is too early in the re-election campaign to worry about Corbett's poll standing and that when faced with a choice between Corbett and a Democratic opponent — the primary is May 20 — voters will re-elect the incumbent.

"The governor has always said he wasn't sent here to make popular decisions, especially with what he was walking into,'' campaign spokesman Billy Pitman says. "A lot of tough decisions needed to be made, which is exactly what he's been doing.''

The Republican Governors Association promises it is "all in'' to help Corbett's re-election, says spokeswoman Gail Gitcho. "Once you have an opponent, that would probably be a time when you take a look at his poll numbers. It's just so early and the Democrats in Pennsylvania are going to be spending money to beat each other up.''

The campaign is highlighting the state's below-average unemployment rate, balanced and on-time state budgets, and business tax cuts. Corbett has shown signs of moving to the center. In his new budget, which is before the Legislature, Corbett included an increase for education. He diverted federal heating-aid dollars to help avoid a cut in food stamps.

"Just got to do a better job of getting the message out with voters,'' Pitman says. "The governor's never been a typical politician that he beats his chest and touts what he's done. We're going to be doing that a lot more on the campaign trail.''