For the first two years of his tenure, Gov. Wolf skipped the political class’s annual rendezvous in New York known as Pennsylvania Society, citing budget impasses in Harrisburg or other matters.
In December, as he made his first appearance at the weekend marathon of handshaking and small talk, a reporter joked that he had no excuse for missing the event this time around. The governor laughed. “It’s a nice time to be in New York,” he said. Careful not to offend his constituents, he added: “Not as nice as Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, however.”
Wolf, a Democrat, doesn’t particularly enjoy the politicking associated with governing, frustrating some in his party who would like to see more energy and direction from the top. Donors may not be lining up to get a cocktail with him at the latest fund-raiser — and the feeling is probably mutual. He has a doctorate in political science from MIT, but no one would mistake him for a political animal. Nor is he known for soaring oratory.
But as Wolf seeks reelection in November, he could benefit from a number of factors that seem likely to drive Democratic enthusiasm.
Out-of-state interest groups and donors want to protect a potentially vulnerable Democratic incumbent who’s running in a state President Trump won in 2016. Grassroots Democratic energy — as evidenced by results of last year’s local elections in Philadelphia’s collar counties, for example — could benefit the top of the ticket. And Democrats know that with a Republican-led legislature in Harrisburg, Wolf is their best ally on everything from redistricting to abortion rights.
Another early indicator of his strong position: the millionaire businessman who largely self-financed his first bid this time has an $11 million war chest, according to records filed late last month. Wolf’s campaign has collected nearly $5 million from labor unions, $250,000 from the Democratic Governors Association, and $1 million from a political action committee that has received donations from unions and Philadelphia law firms.
He’s also getting help from out of state, raising nearly $50,000 from donors in Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, including Hollywood super agent Ari Emanuel, writer/producer Judd Apatow, and Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman. New Yorkers also chipped in: $25,000 from billionaire John Catsimatidis, for example, and $20,000 from former NBA commissioner David Stern.
Wolf raised more money in the year before his reelection than any other incumbent governor in modern times, according to his campaign.
“He’s never going to be that Bill Clinton, Ed Rendell Democrat. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a serious candidate, focused on issues,” said Alan Kessler, a Democratic Philadelphia lawyer and fund-raiser, referring to more dynamic personalities.
“It’s not like, I’ve got to hold my nose and vote for him,” Kessler added. “Gov. Wolf hasn’t created those kinds of strong negative feelings that unfortunately some people had for Hillary.”
Or, as Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report put it: “That’s what voters wanted four years ago. They wanted somebody who was not terribly exciting and had experience running a business.”
There hasn’t been much recent public polling, so it’s hard to know how strongly voters feel about Wolf at this moment. But a Morning Consult survey released Feb. 1 found 44 percent of Pennsylvania voters approved of Wolf’s job performance, compared with 38 percent who disapproved. Seventeen percent expressed no opinion.
Forty-two percent of Keystone State residents approve of Trump, while 53 percent disapprove, according to a Gallup survey released Jan. 30.
Running for the GOP nomination to challenge Wolf in November are State House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), State Sen. Scott Wagner (R., York), business consultant Paul Mango, and lawyer Laura Ellsworth.
Experts said the gubernatorial election will likely reflect the national mood, and because the president’s party tends to lose seats in Congress during his first midterm election, that could bode well for Wolf.
But Democrats’ advantage on the generic congressional ballot, which asks voters which party they want to represent them in Congress, has closed in the last few weeks. Once leading Republicans by double-digit margins, Democrats are now favored by just 6 to 7 points, according to the Real Clear Politics average of polls.
Other measures of enthusiasm, however, point toward Democratic momentum: The party nearly yanked control of the Virginia House of Delegates in November, then shocked Republicans last month with a special election win in a Wisconsin legislative district that Trump carried with 56 percent of the vote. Locally, Democrats made historic inroads in Philadelphia’s collar counties last year, and seven Philadelphia-area Republican state lawmakers have announced they won’t seek reelection in November. A special election March 13 in Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District, in the western part of the state, will offer another gauge.
Democratic leaders and activists, meantime, say they’re seeing early signs of sustained energy.
Whereas party leaders typically hope the officeholder at the top of the ballot will drive turnout, the inverse may be true this year, said David Landau, chairman of the Delaware County Democrats. Enthusiasm for state legislative candidates and competitive U.S. House races will benefit higher-profile elected officials like Wolf, he said.
“Generally this time of year, I’m usually scrambling to find people to run” for state legislative seats,” Landau said. “Now I have primaries. I have too many candidates. And they’re good. …That bodes well for Gov. Wolf’s reelection.”
Some activists are working to harness anti-Trump energy — see the Women’s Marches and rise of Indivisible groups — and educate voters about how they can change politics at the state level.
“We have our own villains right here in Harrisburg,” said Jamie Perrapato, executive director of Turn PA Blue, a group that aims to elect more Democrats to the state legislature.
She’s been holding training sessions to teach activists how to raise money and gather petitions for candidates. “They’ve been asleep for a while,” Perrapato said of the new activists. “They just woke up. And they want to learn.”
She said voters who head to the polls excited about Democratic candidates for the General Assembly would help Wolf up the ballot.
For his part, Wolf can play up his role in vetoing a GOP measure to restrict abortion rights and remind voters that the governor must sign off on the electoral maps submitted by the legislature in the next round of redistricting, which takes effect in 2022.
He has also expanded Medicaid, legalized medical marijuana, and loosened Pennsylvania’s Prohibition-era laws on the sale of wine and beer.
But he’s also been accused of being ineffectual at times, as when Republicans scrambled for weeks last year to negotiate a revenue package and the governor was nowhere to be seen in the capital.
On Tuesday, though, he seemed to strike the right note in his budget address. At the top of the speech, Wolf celebrated the Super Bowl champs, donning an Eagles cap and exclaiming, “Fly, Eagles, Fly!”
He got a standing ovation.