Corbett banks on reversal in governor's race
HARRISBURG — Republican Gov. Tom Corbett since March has shifted his position on key issues, possibly to garner support among Democrats and independent voters in the November election, analysts say.
The governor “appears to be taking some opportunities to soften his (conservative) positions on an array of issues,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
Corbett opposed medical marijuana but now supports a pilot program. He dropped an appeal of a court ruling against the state's voter ID law and moved from a mandatory to a voluntary work-search requirement for recipients in the state's expanded Medicaid plan.
The shifting positions are not coincidental, said Michael Federici, chairman of the political science department at Mercyhurst College in Erie.
“They are calculated efforts to improve his position in the election,” he said.
Corbett's campaign spokesman, Billy Pitman, countered that these were not campaign-based decisions “but were made in the best interest of the people of Pennsylvania.”
The governor is running unopposed in the GOP primary on Tuesday. The state Republican Party waged a successful legal battle to knock ultra-conservative challenger Bob Guzzardi off the ballot. Among four candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, York businessman Tom Wolf remains the front-runner in a Franklin & Marshall College poll released this week.
No Pennsylvania governor has lost a re-election bid since a constitutional change allowed two terms and voters re-elected the late Gov. Milton Shapp in 1974. Political strategists across the country have pegged Corbett as one of the nation's most vulnerable governors in 2014.
Corbett's turnarounds on Medicaid and limited forms of medicinal marijuana “allow him to be portrayed as more flexible and compassionate,” said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University in Chester. The changes appear to be aimed at swing voters, he said.
“Other pivots, such as his proposal for increased education funding and more aid for middle-class college scholarships, allow him to make the case he's not a Tea Party clone,” Leckrone said.
Corbett has not shored up his Republican base, Federici said. Two years of poor performance in public opinion polls suggest he has “a minimal chance of getting re-elected,” he said.
But Alan Brink, a Republican committeeman in Delaware County, believes Corbett is “grossly underrated.”
“When the Democrats sort out their candidates and we know the nominee, he'll look a lot stronger,” said Brink, president of a manufacturing company.
He's not sure Corbett's shifts on issues will make much difference.
It's not clear whether the governor has improved his odds of winning re-election by changing stances, said Jack Treadway, author of a book on state elections who taught political science at Kutztown University.
“Will it work? That is another question. Voters will say, ‘Look at what he did in the past,' ” Treadway said.
Asked whether Corbett has won her over, voter Carol Messinger, 63, a Northampton County Democrat, said: “One hundred percent no. I just think he is one of the worst governors we've had in a very long time.”
Messinger said Corbett's reduction of education funding is a major reason. Then, she said, there's his “horrible handling” of the nearly three-year investigation of child molester Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted in 2012. Corbett began and supervised that investigation as attorney general until January 2011.
If Wolf wins the nomination, Democrats will need to unify to negate attacks on him by challengers Rob McCord, the state treasurer, and U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, said Chris Nicholas, political director for the Pennsylvania Business Council.
Most unions have endorsed McCord, Nicholas said. The fourth Democrat running is former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Katie McGinty. Wolf might be hurting for campaign money after spending most of his own $10 million on the primary, Nicholas said.
Not according to Corbett, who in a fundraising appeal to Republicans this week said that “President Obama and his special-interest supporters (will be) funding my opponent to the teeth.”
Corbett's best course is to “improve his standing among moderates,” Borick said, “but of course he runs the risk of disappointing conservatives who have mixed feelings about his commitment to their issues.”
Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter. Reach him at 717-787-1405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.