Democrats entered the midterm elections hoping to dethrone four infamous, budget-cutting, labor-bashing governors: Sam Brownback in Kansas, Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Rick Scott in Florida, and Rick Snyder in Michigan. All of these races were considered toss-ups, and Democrats delighted at the prospect of capturing four more governorships. Instead, as Election Day drew to a close, it became increasingly evident that the Democrats would be disappointed. The four Republican governors that Democrats attempted to unseat were re-elected and, to add insult to injury, Republicans also seized the liberal bastions of Maryland and Massachusetts.
The one state that got lost amid the Republican clamor was Pennsylvania, where voters emphatically threw out the Republican incumbent in favor of a Democrat making his first run for elective office. Tom Wolf, the CEO of a kitchen cabinet company and former state Revenue Secretary, captured almost 55 percent of the vote
Wolf is a bald, spectacled, 65-year old with a soft-spoken, professorial nature. But don’t let his appearance fool you. With 58 percent of the vote, Wolf – a $10 million self-funded candidate – easily crushed his more prominent Democratic opponents in the primary. Crushed might even be an understatement. The runner up, US Rep. Allyson Schwartz, received only 18%. Now, Wolf is preparing to take the reins of Pennsylvania, the sixth most populous state in the nation.
Gov. Tom Corbett, the Republican who Wolf beat (or, as headlines liked to cleverly say, “devoured”), was deeply unpopular in Pennsylvania for doing much of what he pledged to do, a strategy that closely mirrored what Republicans were doing in states across the country: cutting spending, refusing to raise taxes (except the gas tax), and passing strict anti-abortion and voter ID laws.
Corbett, a life-long prosecutor, never had Chris Christie-esque political charisma. He struggled to justify to voters why education funding never reached the levels it had during Gov. Ed Rendell’s last year in office, and Democrats slammed him for four years over the “one billion dollar education cut.” The attacks stuck. It’s something of a messy topic, but Rendell was able to pad the education budget with federal stimulus money. Of course, Corbett could have replaced that money when it ran out, but that might have required a tax increase.
Education funding became the main issue of the campaign. Wolf pledged to restore it, and Corbett foolishly tried (and failed) to argue that he had increased education funding. Corbett did allocate more money toward education, but without the federal stimulus money, the overall total was less. Coupled with the perceived education cuts, steady property tax increases led to rising levels of dissatisfaction amongst the electorate And if this wasn’t enough to doom Corbett then the state’s stagnant economy was: Pennsylvania’s economic growth ranked forty-seventh in 2013. While Wolf brought his likability, proven business acumen, and gleaming résumé to the table for voters, his greatest asset was perhaps Tom Corbett.
“It’s almost as if the ballot said ‘Tom Corbett, yes or no?’” said Thomas Fitzgerald, a longtime politics reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
James O’Toole, the politics editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette echoed the point, framing the election as a referendum on the Republican incumbent. Wolf, he pointed out, was beating Corbett in the polls before people even knew who Wolf was.
Republicans actually increased their majorities in both houses of the state legislature – further indicating that Corbett, not the Republican Party, was the problem. Wolf may have been a good candidate, but he could not have picked a better opponent than Corbett.
“He was not a good communicator,” said O’Toole of Corbett. “He had no friends in the legislature.”
That’s not exactly a winning formula for a sitting governor.
Wolf’s team, however, maintains that their candidate was more than the anti-Corbett.
“Not any Democrat would have beaten Tom Corbett, and certainly not any Democrat would have beaten him by ten points,” said Jeffrey Sheridan, press secretary for the Wolf campaign.
Wolf is, in many ways, not only a model Democratic candidate, but a model candidate in general. Soft-spoken, disarming, and instantly likeable, he brought to the table the kind of résumé political strategists dream about.
On his way to a B.A. at Dartmouth, Wolf took a two-year break to serve in the Peace Corps in India. He went on to earn his M.Phil. at the University of London and a Ph.D. in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His dissertation, which examined structural changes in the House of Representatives from 1878-1921, was awarded a national prize. Harvard offered him a tenure-track position, but Wolf declined and returned home to York, Pennsylvania where he joined the family business, Wolf Organization Inc., and started by driving a forklift. He ran the company from 1985 to 2006. After a two-year stint as Revenue Secretary, Wolf prepared to run for governor in 2010. But news came that the business his family had built, and sold in 2006, faced bankruptcy. Wolf terminated his plans to run, and instead went back to the company to try to save it from collapse. Today, Wolf Organization, Inc., is the largest U.S. distributor of kitchen cabinets.
So when he spoke about fostering manufacturing, raising incomes, and restoring middle class prosperity and opportunity, he actually had a point. His story resonated with voters, especially in the crucial suburban counties in southeast Pennsylvania, where Wolf won by large margins.
Wolf’s main campaign pledge was to place a 5 percent severance tax on natural gas extraction to restore education funding. Pennsylvania is one of the only states in the nation without such a tax, and analysts said passage is likely. However, the easy part ends there. Corbett’s last budget was “balanced” in name only, and relied on a number of gimmicks. Instead of increasing education funding it is quite likely that any revenue from the severance tax will be used to fill a budget hole. Wolf will then have to try to find money elsewhere, since Republicans in the legislature won’t be eager to raise taxes on high earners as Wolf has suggested.
But all those problems can wait until January. For now, Wolf holds the perhaps unenviable position as a Democratic white knight. He handily won a swing state during a bad year for Democrats, dominating cities and suburbs alike, and performing well in conservative rural areas. Moreover, he did it all while talking about a new tax and increased education spending. In this man, Democrats might easily see the anti-Chris Christie: soft-spoken where Christie is loud, pragmatic where Christie is ideological, and state-focused where Christie has national ambitions.
“He is a mystery in a lot of ways,” said Fitzgerald of Wolf. “I’m sure that Hillary is trying to lock up his support as we speak.”
For those interested in a year-by-year comparison of vote totals from the major Pennsylvania counties, see the chart below.
Note: Philadelphia County is the same as the City of Philadelphia. Montgomery, Chester, Delaware and Bucks are home to the main Philadelphia suburbs. Allegheny County is home to Pittsburgh and its major suburbs.
|Corbett, 2010||Obama, 2012||Wolf, 2014|