Pennsylvania's 8-year Itch
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
PHILADELPHIA — If Republicans anywhere should feel confident about taking over the governor's office from a Democrat in November, it's in Pennsylvania, at least if you believe in some remarkable electoral history.
Like clockwork, the governorship here has switched between Democrats and Republicans every eight years since 1954. The "8-year cycle," as it is known from political science classes to the Capitol press room, has spanned 14 gubernatorial elections. It prevailed even in the days when Pennsylvania governors were limited to a single four-year term, rather than two four-year terms, as they are today. Two political analysts recently calculated the odds of the cycle simply being a fluke at longer than 5,000 to 1.
Perhaps most alarming for Democrats, who have held the governorship for the last eight years under former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, the streak has almost always favored the party that's not in power in Washington. Only in 1982, when Republican Dick Thornburgh was elected to a second term as governor while Ronald Reagan was president, did Pennsylvania voters choose not to separate their state and federal chief executives by party.
"The body politic likes balance," says Tom Corbett, who has good reason to approve of Pennsylvania's regular switches in political thinking. Corbett is the state attorney general, he is the front-runner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination and — if 2010 turns out the way the last 56 years have gone — he will be the next governor to take the oath of office in Harrisburg.
Stateline.org interviewed Corbett before a campaign stop at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia in late March, and he made clear that the state's electoral cycles are something he's thought about, even if he doesn't exactly consider his victory a foregone conclusion. "I like the trend," Corbett said with a grin. He is a soft-spoken and measured politician who presents a clear contrast with the gregarious and often blunt Rendell.
In most ways, Pennsylvania is difficult to fit neatly into any political category. This is a place whose political landscape is often described as "Pennsyltucky": the urban areas of Pittsburgh in the West and Philadelphia in the East, with the equivalent of rural Kentucky in the vast, sparsely populated middle. Its legislature is politically divided, like those in heartland battlegrounds such as Indiana and Ohio. Its senior U.S. senator, Arlen Specter, was a Democrat and then a Republican before returning to the Democratic Party in a dramatic announcement last year.
The 2010 gubernatorial election will be a test of whether anti-Washington and anti-Harrisburg sentiment can overcome what has been a steadily rising Democratic tide in recent years, particularly in the heavily populated suburbs of Philadelphia, the nation's sixth-largest city.
Corbett, for his part, represents the anti-Washington and anti-Harrisburg sentiment. He is one of 15 state attorneys general to file suit over the federal health care legislation President Obama signed into law two weeks ago. Corbett insists the lawsuit is not politically motivated and "is not about health care." Rather, he says, "this lawsuit is about the overreach of the federal government," particularly a new requirement that all Americans carry a health insurance policy.
In many parts of Pennsylvania, that argument plays well, and it has helped endear Corbett to Tea Party voters whom he acknowledges his campaign is trying to reach. "People here are definitely watching Washington," he says, pointing to the "8-year cycle" as evidence.
Corbett also is reaping political benefits from another legal pursuit he is spearheading: his prosecution of state legislators and staffers from both political parties in connection with the illegal use of taxpayer-funded bonuses for campaign work. The scandal, known around the Capitol as "Bonusgate," has shaken Harrisburg and kept Corbett in the headlines, helping him cultivate the image of a law-and-order reformer cracking down on a statehouse that has seen more than its share of mischief in recent years. Last year, Vincent Fumo, a Democrat and one of the most powerful state senators in modern Pennsylvania history, was convicted on 137 counts of corruption in federal court in Philadelphia.
While Corbett has enjoyed the official backing of the GOP establishment, four Democratic gubernatorial candidates — Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, State Auditor General Jack Wagner and State Senator Anthony Williams — are vying for their party's nomination in the May 18 primary. Onorato is considered the front-runner, and has already amassed campaign contributions exceeding $9 million. Experts say it would be a mistake to underestimate the eventual Democratic nominee, regardless of who it will be.
"Whoever emerges as the nominee for the Democratic Party is likely to be someone with a relatively untarnished reputation," says Thomas Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, noting that because they are local and not federal officeholders, none of the Democratic candidates can easily be tied to actions in Washington that could become a central point of debate.
One clear advantage that Democrats have over Republicans is a 1.2 million-person lead in registered voters. The months-long standoff between Obama and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 Democratic presidential nominating process — along with Pennsylvania's crucial primary late in that process — helped drive up the party's rolls, and some Democratic strategists believe the margin is now so overwhelming that Republicans have no room at all for error. "That's not just a little bit of a bump," says Neil Oxman, a consultant for the Onorato campaign. "That's an enormous bump."
If this year comes down to turnout, no region will be more important than the suburbs of southeast Pennsylvania that ring Philadelphia. They vaulted Rendell into the governor's office eight years ago, ensured his reelection four years later and have taken on an outsized role in the state's political calculus. In Philadelphia itself, nearly 80 percent of all voters are registered Democrats, and suburban counties that once were solidly Republican have switched in favor of the Democrats during the last eight years, leading to the term "Rendellicans" — or Republicans who voted for Rendell.
Indeed, G. Terry Madonna, a well-known Pennsylvania pollster and political analyst, says that Rendell, more than any other governor, has been able to capitalize on his recognition and popularity in and around Philadelphia, and Madonna predicts that the region will have a lot to say about the result of this year's gubernatorial race as well.
"The biggest factor internally within our state has been the growth and power of the Southeast, with the population shifts in the last two decades," Madonna says. "Forty percent of the state's voters are within reach of the Philadelphia TV market," meaning that whoever wants to crack Pennsylvania voters' consciousness must crack the Philadelphia area.
That's not necessarily a good thing for Corbett or Onorato, both of whom come from Pittsburgh, a city at the other end of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and one many residents in sports-mad Philadelphia love to hate. (Rendell, for his part, mastered the art of tapping into the psyche of Philadelphia sports fans by contributing TV commentary after Eagles football games.)
"Western Pennsylvania voters will come out and they will vote for a western candidate," Baldino, the Wilkes University professor, says. But he predicts that the outcome of the election — and the test of the eight-year itch — will likely hinge on whether the eventual Democratic nominee can mobilize the Philadelphia and suburban Philadelphia voters who delivered the governor's mansion to Rendell in 2002 and 2006.