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Democrats' spending on gubernatorial primary expected to surpass record

| Saturday, May 17, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Gov. Ed Rendell was 25 points behind in the polls when he waged the state's most expensive gubernatorial primary.

“When I started out, nobody thought I could beat Bob Casey, an extremely popular elected official,” Rendell said, recalling the 2002 open seat. “What I had going for myself was my ability to raise money.”

Rendell is the state's highest-grossing governor, raising more than $43 million in his first bid and $31.7 million for his re-election. State law does not cap campaign contributions, so politicians can raise and spend unlimited sums in running for office.

The field of four Democrats competing on Tuesday to run against Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in November has spent nearly $30.7 million this primary season, according to campaign finance forms filed through May 5. In Allegheny County, their efforts will be met by an estimated 30 percent of registered Democrats and 25 percent of registered Republicans, according to the county elections division. Similar turnout rates are expected in Westmoreland and Fayette counties.

Rendell's open-seat primary against now-U.S. Sen. Casey holds the state record for modern primary costs. Together, they spent $31.5 million.

G. Terry Madonna, pollster and political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said this year's Democrats are likely to surpass that record. Not only are there four major candidates, the pack has “deep pockets,” Madonna said, noting the fundraising experience of U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Philadelphia, and state Treasurer Rob McCord.

Katie McGinty, a former Department of Environmental Protection secretary, has been last in fundraising despite drumming up millions of dollars.

Presumed front-runner Tom Wolf, a businessman from York County, funneled $10 million of his personal fortune to his campaign, boosted by a $4.5 million loan.

Wolf was the first to buy TV airtime, with 1,800 ads in four media markets, Madonna said. He secured double-digit leads in polls that persisted through the last days of the race.

“No one knew him,” Madonna said. “His heavy media buy had completely transformed the nature of the election.”

Rendell purchased television ads three weeks and two days earlier than Casey. By May 2002, the campaign was burning through $1.1 million a week.

“We went on the air the first week in January and stayed on,” Rendell said. “Money was very important for that purpose.”

Statewide turnout that year was 33 percent among registered Democrats, with more than 1.2 million ballots cast. Combined, Rendell and Casey spent about $25.36 per vote.

Dan Fee, a Democratic consultant, said Pennsylvania's seven media markets demand high spending on advertising — and Philadelphia, the fourth-largest media market in the country, has prices roughly equivalent to the other six combined.

“All campaigns have always spent as much money as they thought it would take to win,” Fee said. “The issue is things are getting more expensive.”

Nationwide, candidates in the 2009-10 gubernatorial elections raised a record-setting $2.5 billion, up from $2.2 billion during the last cycle, according to the nonprofit National Institute on Money in State Politics in Helena, Mont. In 2009-10, Corbett had the sixth-highest campaign fundraising total nationwide: $28.5 million.

Denise Roth Barber, managing director at the institute, said statistics from 2000 through 2013 show 80 percent of the 245 gubernatorial hopefuls who were the top fundraisers in a general election won. But exceptions abound. In California in 2010, Republican Meg Whitman spent $140 million of her own money in a $170 million campaign — and lost.

“You don't have to be personally wealthy to run for governor, but it doesn't hurt to have access to money,” Barber said.

Wolf, who spoke at a campaign event on Thursday with state Rep. Ed Gainey, D-East Liberty, said money allows candidates to tell their story, but it's up to the voters to decide.

Wolf noted he is beholden to his biggest donor — himself — not outside interests.

“You can't buy an election; it's a democracy,” he said. “The verdict is ultimately rendered by the voters.”

Melissa Daniels is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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