Pa. Gov's Race in Spotlight
By Peter Durantine, Special to Stateline
With neither candidate facing an opponent in Tuesday's primary election, the race for Pennsylvania governor has already started with the incumbent, Democrat Ed Rendell , ahead in the polls and secure in his Philadelphia-area base - the five-county electorate fortress that won him the office in 2002.
Historically, incumbent governors have won second terms in this two-term limit state, and though most political observers believe tradition will carry on this year, Rendell nonetheless faces a strong challenge from Republican pro football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann.
Swann's primary challengers dropped off when the state party endorsed him, but he has never held elected office. This could work in his favor. Voters, still steaming over last year's controversial legislative pay raise, are in an anti-incumbent mood.
Moreover, Swann's a sports hero, a former Pittsburgh Steeler, trying to become Pennsylvania's first African-American governor and the nation's first African-American Republican governor, though he has competition on the second goal. This year's other GOP African-American gubernatorial candidates are Ken Blackwell, Ohio's Secretary of State, and New York Secretary of State Randy Daniels. Massachusetts Democrat Deval Patrick, a former assistant U.S. attorney for civil rights, and former Oregon Treasurer Jim Hill (D) are the other two African-American gubernatorial candidates this year. Democrat Douglas Wilder of Virginia is the first African-American to have been elected governor in the United States, serving from 1990 to 1994.
Voter anger is so strong - they tossed out a sitting state Supreme Court judge on a retention vote in last fall's municipal election, compelling the Legislature to repeal a pay raise for lawmakers- 28 incumbents decided to retire. Many legislators seeking re-election, including three powerful legislative leaders, are fighting to keep their seats.
Rick Santorum, third-ranking Republican in the U.S. Senate, also feels some of the anti-incumbent heat. His likely opponent in November, Democrat Robert P. Casey Jr., the state Treasurer, has been ahead in the polls since he announced his candidacy last year. Casey faces two primary opponents, Chuck Pennacchio, a history and politics professor, and attorney Alan Sandals.
This is the backdrop to Rendell's campaign for a second term, but to Democratic relief and Republican frustration, the governor has managed to remain unscathed, even though he supported and signed the pay raise. Voters blame legislators.
Rendell, since his days as Philadelphia's mayor, is a strong campaigner and an effective fundraiser. He's so far raised $15.5 million - he spent nearly three times that amount in 2002 - and put up TV ads statewide the day after Easter. Comparatively, Swann's fundraising is lagging, having collected about $1.5 million to date.
Despite his supporters' view that Swann is little more than a lightweight, having neither political nor governmental experience, Rendell is taking no chances. His TV ads have touted his accomplishments and vision and said nothing about his opponent.
"More than anything, we need to pay attention to what we're doing," says Dan Fee, Rendell's campaign spokesman.
Swann's supporters believe he benefits from the anti-incumbent feeling in voters. He stands as an agent of change, partly because of his ethnicity, largely, though, because he's a novice, an outsider to Pennsylvania politics. The 53-year-old's life career has been the Steelers and sports broadcasting.
But Rendell also is an agent of change, having ushered into law legislation likely to governmentally, economically and socially transform Pennsylvania.
The largest expansion of gambling in the state's history will bring 14 venues for slot casinos, but they won't be in place this year for voters to judge whether this is good for the state, though polls show a majority favor using proceeds to cut property taxes.
Rendell has yet to fulfill his promise for property tax cuts (at least at this writing; he still may achieve something before November), but he has satisfied pledges to spend more on education and the environment; increase spending on economic development; and expand the state's prescription drug program for seniors.
He bumped up the state income tax - from 2.8 to 3.07 percent - but not enough for most people to notice a difference in their paychecks; at least not enough to become the singular reason for voters to reject him.
Swann takes the governor to task on taxes, and though he has yet to offer a vision for where he wants to take the state, he has promised to repeal the tax increase as part of a $1 billion tax cut plan. GOP strategists believe Swann's handsome looks and celebrity status will make him a formidable candidate and competitive fund raiser.
The Rendell campaign is working to use Swann's celebrity against him, noting the records of former wrestler and actor Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R).
"They can get elected, but they're not qualified to be governor," Fee said.
Rendell has some star quality, too, serving as governor and sports commentator for Comcast. The two men actually have a few things in common. Both are charismatic, they're personable, likeable; good on those one-on-one meetings with people.
Clay Richards, the assistant director at Quinnipiac University's Polling Institute , says as voters see and hear more from Swann their concern about his lack of experience will diminish as long as he has a convincing message.
"Swann is a great communicator and he should overcome that concern," he says.
When the party endorsed his nomination, Swann conveyed he was a change from the old political ilk; his campaign wasn't going to be about white papers. "My policies will be about the people," he says. "Pennsylvania wants and needs change and change is on the way."
Swann, say Republican insiders, can credibly say something like this because he is an outsider.
Whether he can draw support from Rendell's base is uncertain. Swann needs a substantial chunk of votes from the Philadelphia area as well as a strong showing in the rest of the state to win the election.
Swann's team believes he will win African-American and soccer mom support in greater Philadelphia. There is a problem with these assumptions, though. Historically, skin color hasn't automatically earned an African-American the African-American vote, according to pollster Richards. And soccer moms in the Philadelphia area are likely to vote against Swann for his anti-abortion stance, say Democratic strategists.
Swann is on record saying he would sign a bill to ban abortion, if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and returns the decision to the state, but this issue magnified when South Dakota banned abortion earlier this year.
If anything, voters, whether black or white, are likely to vote for Swann simply because he's a football celebrity, though fans of the Philadelphia Eagles may find it hard to vote for the onetime star receiver of the cross-state rival Steelers.
Larry Ceisler, a political analyst in the Philadelphia firm Ceisler Jubelirer , has watched Rendell the last 20 years handily defeat African-American contenders in his bids for mayor.
"Rendell has always done well with African-American voters, even when he's had African-American opponents," Ceisler says.
Still, Rendell needs this time to do more than hold his base, which won him the governorship. He has to build voter support in other regions of the state, particularly in the west, where even some Democratic voters are disenchanted.
"This election isn't about winning because he will win it; it's about governing," Ceisler says. "He has to do better than he did four years ago, if he's going to govern successfully."
Peter Durantine is a freelance journalist based in Harrisburg , Pa.