Democrats' apathy could boost GOP in Pa.

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Left: Democrat Joe Sestak campaigns Friday for the U.S. Senate in Throop, Pa. (Michael J. Mullen / Scranton Times & Tribune) Right: Republican Pat Toomey campaigns Saturday. (Akira Suwa / Staff)

With the battle for Harrisburg coming to a frenzied finish, Republicans on Tuesday have a chance to turn back the political clock in Pennsylvania by winning the governorship and taking total command of the legislature.

Not since the 2002 election have Republicans held full sway in the Capitol. They could achieve that if Tom Corbett, who has led in polls from day one, beats Democrat Dan Onorato for governor, and if the GOP adds control of the House to its lock on the Senate.

The outcome might be in the hands of the state's 4.5 million Democrats. They outnumber the Republicans by 1.2 million, but polls suggest they are showing far less voting interest than in 2008, when they swept President Obama and a multitude of Democrats into key offices.

Obama, in Philadelphia on Saturday for a get-out-the-vote rally with Onorato and other Democrats, warned a crowd of about 1,500 at Temple University that "unless each and every one of you turns out . . . all the progress that we've made over the last couple of years can be rolled back."

Democrats hope that a late surge of voter interest will dam the tide in what has looked like a GOP year - in Harrisburg as well as in Washington.

But pollster Chris Borick, a political scientist at Muhlenberg College, said that might be difficult.

"There is some clear evidence that this is now Tom Corbett's race to lose," he said. "And there are more than enough places where the Republicans can pick up the seats they need to claim a majority in the state House."

Republicans need three more seats in the 203-member chamber to win control. Democrats hope to prevent that.

Also at stake Tuesday is which party gets to redraw legislative and U.S. House districts for the next decade. The Republicans' complete control of Harrisburg in 2001 allowed them to map out districts that favored their side.

The governorship has changed parties every eight years since the 1950s - a bad trend for Democrats, with Gov. Rendell leaving office. The GOP has ruled the Senate since the 1994 election. Control of the House has gone back and forth.

Even some Democratic analysts are saying aloud that they are worried about a Republican sweep.

"I think they have a good chance of doing that," said Eleanor Dezzi, a veteran campaign adviser from Philadelphia. "I think turnout is going to be the key, and I am not sure who is going to turn out."

Corbett, 61, with a helmet of brilliant white hair, seeks to become the first attorney general elected governor since Republican James H. Duff in 1946.

Corbett has campaigned on a Reaganesque platform of no new taxes and budget cuts.

He is a lifelong prosecutor, and his lack of experience in dealing with issues such as transportation, welfare, and the environment has shown at times.

But his Bonusgate investigation, in which his office has convicted 10 state officials and state employees on corruption charges, has given him credibility in saying he would reform the political tone in Harrisburg.

With his running mate, Bucks County Commissioner Jim Cawley, Corbett has been fighting off any hint of overconfidence by his supporters.

"I am confident, but not complacent," he has said repeatedly in recent days.

Corbett spent Saturday touring small restaurants in central Pennsylvania and tailgating with Penn State fans before the Michigan game.

Dale Vollman, who hosted Corbett at his Rivals sports bar in Williamsport, said he expected Corbett to turn back what he saw as the Democrats' tax-and-spend policies.

"I think Tom is going to put a rein on our fiscal insanity and help the small businessperson, provide us with a little better business climate," Vellone said.

Thursday and Friday, Corbett held rallies in the Philadelphia suburbs with Republican Govs. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, Haley Barbour of Mississippi, Bob McDonnell of Virginia, and Christopher J. Christie of New Jersey.

Except for Christie, none is a household name in the region.

Onorato, by contrast, has a sitting president and a popular former president, Bill Clinton, to whip up voter turnout in Democrat-rich urban areas.

"I'm pleading with you," Clinton said in Norristown on Thursday. "If this electorate were the same as the electorate of 2008, Dan Onorato would be 15 points ahead and we wouldn't even be here."

Onorato, 49, whose retreating hair seems to have gotten thinner in months of campaigning, casts himself as the can-do Allegheny County executive in Pittsburgh who has dealt with the sort of pension crisis Harrisburg faces, who has fought to revive old industrial areas, and who has fought to hold the line on property taxes. (Corbett has bashed him for imposing a drink tax.)

His running mate is State Rep. Scott Conklin, of State College.

Borick said his polls show that neither gubernatorial candidate had awakened much election interest in the Philadelphia region.

"I don't think the east has gotten as excited because they don't have a homegrown candidate," he said. "The candidates are both from Pittsburgh. I guess [voters] think they're Steelers fans."

But Jacqui Daley, 59, of Norristown, who attended the Clinton rally in Norristown, said she'd vote for Onorato simply because he was a Democrat.

"The economy is in a sad state of affairs," she said. "We've got a president in office who inherited this mess. . . . I'm voting Democratic because they are more or less going to say, 'Back the president.' "

Of course, us-vs.-them rhetoric works on both sides.

State Sen. David G. Argall, running to unseat Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Holden in Republican central Pennsylvania, talked about how frustrated he was with big-city Democrats while warming up a Corbett crowd Monday in Pine Grove.

Recalling one recent legislative battle, he said Republicans were "desperately trying to get more money for roads and bridges." But State Rep. Dwight Evans, a House Democratic leader from Philadelphia, "only wanted to talk about SEPTA," he said.

"It's a totally different mind-set," he said, almost spitting out the sentence.

The message seemed clear: If Republicans take control, SEPTA's interests - and Philadelphia's - could be on the back burner.

The battle for the House is being fought every bit as hard as the battle for governor. It just isn't as visible.

Corbett and Onorato have raised a combined $50 million for their battle. House races won't approach that.

Yet House Democratic leaders have raised $6.9 million and House Republican leaders $5.6 million, according to Capitolwire, a newsletter for Harrisburg insiders.

While all 203 seats are up, the battle is concentrated in a dozen districts that could go either way.

State Rep. Dave Reed, of Indiana County, leader of the House Republican Campaign Committee, said the GOP hoped to pick up "a minimum" of six seats - two each in Western Pennsylvania, central Pennsylvania, and the Philadelphia suburbs.

He said he thought the GOP would win the governorship and the House, cementing control of Harrisburg for two years.

"We believe the chances are very good that that's going to occur," he said.

The Democrats believe they can hold their ground - maybe even pick up a seat or two. They think, for instance, that they can knock off Rep. John M. Perzel of Northeast Philadelphia, a former House speaker.

House Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D., Luzerne), who is facing an unexpectedly tough battle from a Republican challenger, said he was confident that Democrats would retain their seats and pull through in the end.

"We just have to identify voters and keep knocking on doors," he said.

"We just have to hope the wind stops blowing. We had that two years ago. Now we need it to stop blowing from the rightward direction."

 


Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writers Amy Worden and John P. Martin contributed to this article.