Tom Wolf May Win Pennsylvania Easy, But the Job Won't Be

Pennsylvania's Tom Wolf is sure to become the governor, but he's unlikely to get his way once he's in office.
by | November 3, 2014
Hillary Clinton campaigning for Tom Wolf.
Hillary Clinton campaigning for Tom Wolf. MCT/Michael Bryant

Governors will be elected in at least eight new states on Tuesday, and probably several others. Few of the newcomers will have to play a tougher political hand than Pennsylvania Democrat Tom Wolf.

Wolf, a wealthy businessman and former state revenue secretary, is expected to beat Republican Gov. Tom Corbett by a double-digit margin. Corbett's personal unpopularity and handling of various issues has made him the incumbent most certain to lose his job this cycle.

That would be historic. Corbett would be the first sitting governor to lose a reelection bid since the state constitution was changed to allow two-term administrations in 1968. It would also snap a streak dating back to World War II in which party control in the state has changed hands every eight years.

But for all the change a new governor brings, it won't affect control of the legislature. Democrats have only a slim chance of taking the state Senate on Tuesday, meaning Wolf will face two chambers full of members deeply skeptical about much of his agenda.

"He has a very ambitious agenda consisting of a variety of things that the Republican legislature is not going to want to do," said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.

Wolf promises to push something that Corbett has staunchly resisted -- namely, a severance tax on natural gas production at the Marcellus Shale. Pennsylvania is the largest state that lacks such a tax.

"It should not be so difficult to implement the severance tax that he wants to do," says Chelsa Wagner, the Allegheny County controller and a former state legislator. "Even a lot of Republicans have been for that."

Indeed, Republicans in the state Senate might support such a tax, but it would likely be a harder sell among more conservative House members, who are likely to cast a skeptical eye on measures addressing topics such as a minimum wage increase.

Wolf's top priority is education. He wants to increase the state's contribution to K-12 schooling, but he hasn't made clear where the money would come from. Although everyone is in favor of better schools, increasing funding won't be easy.

"I would be shocked if he didn't come up with aggressive proposals on education and taxes right out of the shoot after the inauguration," says Randall Miller, a historian at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia, "and basically these are the things that need to get done if we're going to do anything else."

It would be a mistake to assume that because the new governor would be a Democrat while the legislature remains Republican, they must naturally be at odds, said David Thornburgh, executive director of the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.

Wolf will have to do a dance with the legislature to get GOP members to move his way, but he starts with the advantage that they may be ready for a change after barely getting along with Corbett, even though he is also a Republican.

"The Wolf campaign, in choosing 'fresh start' as its banner, is suggesting there's just a new sense of direction and maybe there will be a little bit more energetic and activist state government than, they suggest, the Corbett folks have put forward," Thornburgh said.

That may well be the case. Most people in Pennsylvania believe that Wolf is more likable and will be a better salesman for his causes than Corbett has been. If he wins by the wide margin pollsters have been predicting, he will be able to claim something of a mandate.

But Republicans have controlled the Pennsylvania legislature for the better part of the last 35 years. The days when they would bother to offer Democrats something -- a few items in the budget, say, in return for winning over a few minority party votes -- have pretty much ended.

"There's hyperpartisanship between the Democrats and the Republicans," Madonna said. "Wolf runs into a group of legislators who are protected by gerrymandering. The potential for gridlock is very great."