Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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Wolf's opponents struggle to close gap

Schwartz, McCord pin hopes on the possibility of his support being soft and their field operations being strong.

Democratic primary candidates for governor Tom Wolf (from right), Allyson Schwartz, Katie McGinty and Rob McCord during a taping of a debate earlier this month. The primary is May 20. (Akira Suwa/File photo)
Democratic primary candidates for governor Tom Wolf (from right), Allyson Schwartz, Katie McGinty and Rob McCord during a taping of a debate earlier this month. The primary is May 20. (Akira Suwa/File photo)
Democratic primary candidates for governor Tom Wolf (from right), Allyson Schwartz, Katie McGinty and Rob McCord during a taping of a debate earlier this month. The primary is May 20. (Akira Suwa/File photo) Gallery: Wolf's opponents struggle to close gap

Tom Wolf may have had them at "hello."

The York businessman aired his first campaign TV ad at the end of January - the one showing him behind the wheel of his old Jeep, honking the horn and waving. He's never looked back.

Wolf's spots ran virtually unchallenged for seven weeks, building a lead that has put him in a commanding position heading into Tuesday's Democratic primary for Pennsylvania governor, according to the latest polls. Still, strategists expect 25 percent of registered Democrats to show up at best - about one million voters - and some surveys suggest many remain undecided.

U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz and state Treasurer Rob McCord are pinning hopes of an upset on the possibility that Wolf's support is soft, and on their extensive field operations.

"We're making the calls and doing the door-knocks," Schwartz said Friday afternoon, pausing at Reading Terminal Market, where she was shaking hands.

Her campaign said it had called more than 250,000 voters and knocked on more than 175,000 doors since March 11, and had more than 1,100 active volunteers for the final push.

McCord has an array of volunteers, campaign staff, and field workers from some of the dozens of unions that have endorsed him working to hang personalized reminders to vote on 100,000 doorknobs of identified McCord supporters in the last 48 hours of the campaign, spokesman Mark Nevins said.

"We have a massive [get-out-the-vote] effort," Nevins said. "We're counting on the field."

Two independent polls last week showed the difficulty of the task ahead.

Franklin and Marshall College found Wolf supported by 33 percent of registered Democrats, followed by Schwartz at 14 percent. McCord had the backing of 9 percent, and Katie McGinty of Chester County, a former state environmental secretary, had 5 percent. One third of those voters were undecided.

Wolf led by similar numbers among subsets of Democrats who showed up at the polls in each of the last five primaries and who described themselves as likely voters, two subsets Franklin and Marshall included in its survey to measure what might happen in a low-turnout primary.

"We'd be looking at an unprecedented, epic collapse," said pollster G. Terry Madonna of Franklin and Marshall. "It's almost impossible to believe that anything could go so wrong for Wolf and right for one of the other candidates to move the dial that much."

He said the biggest comeback in a modern Democratic gubernatorial primary was in 2002, when Ed Rendell came from 11 points down in the polls to defeat Robert P. Casey Jr., now a U.S. senator.

A good field program could "nibble around the edges, but there's no ground game in America that can make up 15 points," said a Democratic strategist who is not working in the race.

And a Muhlenberg College/Morning Call poll of likely Democratic primary voters released Friday afternoon was remarkably close to Franklin and Marshall's findings, with Wolf at 37 percent, Schwartz at 14 percent, McCord at 9 percent, and McGinty at 5 percent.

Throughout the campaign, the candidates agreed broadly on policy issues: that state education funding needed to be increased, natural gas drilling taxed, the minimum wage raised, and ethics rules in Harrisburg tightened.

It fell to the candidates to find ways to distinguish themselves. McCord, for instance, advocated a shale tax of 10 percent, compared to the 5 percent proposed by his rivals. Schwartz ran an ad touting her role in working on "Obamacare" legislation, and she suggested Wolf and the others were not sufficiently enthusiastic about the landmark health-care law.

"Most voters don't focus on that level of fine distinction," Madonna said.

Wolf, who served 18 months as state revenue secretary in the Rendell administration, painted an image of himself as the unpolitician. He stressed his past as a Peace Corps volunteer, academic, and businessman. He built the family cabinetry business, the Wolf Organization, sold it, and then bought it back during the recession when he said it was in danger of bankruptcy.

Schwartz attacked Wolf's business record, running ads that blamed massive layoffs in 2007 on the fact that the company was heavily leveraged with debt in order to pay Wolf and his two cousins, who had controlled the business, so it had to lay off hundreds of lumberyard workers.

McCord blasted Wolf because some of his products were made at an Indiana company (with a record of labor-regulation violations, to boot) instead of in Pennsylvania, and because the state pension system lost money on its investment in a private-equity fund that counted the Wolf Organization as one of its assets.

And McCord injected race into the campaign, attacking Wolf in ads for serving as the 2001 campaign chairman for a former York mayor, Charlie Robertson, who was charged that same year as an accessory to murder for his role as a police officer in the city's 1969 race riots.

Given all that criticism, the share of voters who viewed McCord negatively shot up, and Wolf's lead held.

For all the political world's fascination with analytics and digital advertising, that showed saturation television still has immense power. The image Wolf had built of himself was difficult to shake.

As of Thursday, Wolf had outspent his closest competitor, Schwartz, in ad placements by a ratio of better than 2-to-1: $10.6 million in airtime for Wolf to about $4.5 million for Schwartz. McCord spent just under $7 million on ads, and McGinty spent $1.7 million.

"This race was over by mid-March," said Neil Oxman, a Philadelphia Democratic consultant who is not working in the governor's race. "Wolf introduced himself when no one else was talking. Democrats like the guy. When he was challenged, it was in a clumsy way, and he was able to rebut the attacks and hold on to the base he had built up."

Wolf also caught a bit of good luck, Oxman said: His ads were on TV during one of the most bitter winters in decades, when people were indoors and watching.

Already, Gov. Corbett's campaign and the state Republican Party are acting as though they expect Wolf to be their opponent in the fall. Corbett has run a TV ad tying Wolf to the tax policies of the Rendell administration, and the state GOP has bombarded the homes of registered Democrats with attack mailers on Wolf's business practices and even on his firm's record on inclusion of women.

The Republican Governors Association and other GOP organizations plan to keep up the attack through the rest of the spring and into the summer, hoping to weaken Wolf. Said one Republican strategist familiar with the plans: "Expect a dramatic flurry of activity after the primary."

 


tfitzgerald@phillynews.com

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@tomfitzgerald

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Thomas Fitzgerald Inquirer Politics Writer
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