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Wolf runs 'ball-control' campaign in staying ahead of Wagner

| Sunday, Oct. 7, 2018, 10:57 a.m.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, left, and Republican Scott Wagner take part in a gubernatorial debate in Hershey, Pa., Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. The debate is hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, left, and Republican Scott Wagner take part in a gubernatorial debate in Hershey, Pa., Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. The debate is hosted by the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

HARRISBURG — Tom Wolf was in the midst of telling a Democratic Party dinner party crowd last month how important it is for Democrats to tell voters what they stand for in this mid-term election campaign when he interrupted himself.

“Are you aware I’m running for re-election?” he said.

The punchline elicited cheers, but Wolf seemed to voice a widely shared assessment of the race: The low-key governor is barely breaking a sweat in running a disciplined and conservative re-election campaign.

Despite the fact that Republican Scott Wagner is burning up the campaign trail — more than campaign 600 stops, according to Wagner — the brash waste-hauling millionaire and former state senator has struggled to exploit a weakness in his opponent.

Wolf has consistently led independent polls by double-digits and his huge campaign cash advantage over Wagner — five-to-one, as of Sept. 17 — was somewhat unexpected. More than one-third of the $28 million Wolf has reporting raising since the start of 2017 came from labor unions, a regular target of Wagner’s sharpest attacks.

Michael Manzo, a former state House Democratic strategist, compared Wolf’s campaign to a basketball strategy designed to limit risk.

“Wolf is running a ball-control campaign: make no mistakes, a bunch of short passes,” Manzo said.

Wolf has struck several consistent themes.

He has accused Wagner of helping block passage of a politically popular severance tax on the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry. Wolf also repeatedly brings up Wagner’s Trump-like refusal to release his tax returns, and juxtaposes it with his releasing his tax return, donating his official salary to charity and banning gifts of influence to executive-branch employees.

Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican campaign consultant, said Wolf has actively sought a lower profile after learning that controversy — such as battling the Republican-controlled Legislature over billions of dollars in tax increases Wolf had sought — hurts his polling performance.

“No politician does any more than they have to in their re-election campaign and Gov. Wolf is in a long line of candidates who have done that in the past,” Nicholas said. “You have more money than your opponent, you can do it on TV and radio.”

A re-election campaign is a referendum on the incumbent’s record, analysts say, and Wolf contends the state is better off than it was four years ago.

Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate is at an 18-year low, reflecting national trends. Its job-creation rate remains among the nation’s slower states since Wolf took office, but it is better than the bottom-10 ranking Pennsylvania has recorded over the past three decades.

Wolf points to his stewardship of the state’s Medicaid expansion — income eligibility guidelines actually expanded under his Republican predecessor, Tom Corbett, but Wolf has vigorously defended the program — and winning another $1 billion in education aid, about half of what he had originally sought from lawmakers.

Wolf also routinely reminds audiences about the Republican administration he replaced: cutting funding for education, refusing to support gay marriage and working to impose tougher restrictions on voter identification and abortion.

For his part, Wagner is banking heavily on a platter of politically unrealistic promises: eliminating school property taxes, fixing the state’s staggering pension debt, cutting billions in spending and immediately pumping $1 billion into public schools without raising taxes.

Wagner brushes off suggestions that it can’t be done.

“Why don’t we just keep playing the violin for the next 10 years?” Wagner, miming playing a violin, responded to moderator Alex Trebek while discussing pension debt during last week’s debate in Hershey.

Wolf, meanwhile, has made far fewer public campaign appearances than Wagner, but he has the benefit of his administration’s resources to get his message out and has received help from unlikely quarters.

For instance, a stiff primary challenge forced Wagner to spend heavily — $12 million, including in-kind contributions — by June.

Criticism of Wolf’s campaign strategy came to a head this past week amid the contest’s only debate.

Wolf has reiterated his refusal to schedule another debate, despite Wagner’s entreaties, and insists he isn’t afraid of debates.

“I’m not thinking about that at all,” Wolf said in an interview last month. “I’m thinking about how I get my message out, how I do my job as governor and that’s what I’m focused on. And I think I’m doing a pretty good job at that.”

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