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Saturday, July 19, 2014

Midterm Profiles 2014: Pennsylvania - Governor's Race

During this midterm election season, I am starting a new component of this blog: profiles of various contested, closely watched races across the country for governors' mansions, the U.S. House, and, most importantly, the U.S. Senate. These profiles will be based on a variety of sources including on the ground accounts, what the central policy differences are, what polling averages indicate, and the broader importance of each race. Since I am also a proud Democrat though, I will unashamedly include information on how you can help the Democratic candidates in each of these races too. We will begin in my backyard, in the great state of Pennsylvania...

PENNSYLVANIA: GOVERNOR'S RACE

Who's running? 
Incumbent Republican Governor Tom Corbett is running for a second term in office. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tom Wolf, the revenue secretary under former Governor Edward G. Rendell, is running to unseat Governor Corbett.

What do the polls show?
The RealClearPolitics.com polling average shows Mr. Wolf leading by 21.7 points.

What are the political prognosticators saying?
RealClearPolitics.com rates the race as "likely Dem." The Cook Political Report says it's a "toss up." Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight.com says, "to come back from this deficit, Corbett probably needs Wolf to say something outlandish." National Journal recently said that Corbett is "dead man walking" and compared his situation to that of Rick Santorum's in 2006 when the then-Pennsylvania Senator lost reelection to now-Senator Bob Casey by 18 points.

What are the central policy differences? 
Governor Corbett is strongly emphasizing his support for pension reform, indicating that he wishes to see that "new employees would receive a defined pension benefit based on their average salary, years of service capped at 25 years, and a multiplier...[while] employees and the state would contribute to the plan, as would school districts for their workers," per the Hazleton Standard-Speaker. Corbett appears to be making this pitch central to his proposed second-term agenda as he promoted it in a stop in Sugarloaf, a town not too far from my neighborhood, earlier this week. The governor is also framing his support for natural gas drilling - which has expanded on his watch - as a job-creating economic boon.

Tom Wolf is decrying Governor Corbett's large cuts in education spending in his first year, promising instead to amend the funding formula for education in the state so as to allow for great education spending. In terms of the Marcellus Shale drilling issue, Mr. Wolf is heavily underscoring his backing of a severance tax on drilling -- something the governor has strenuously opposed -- and highlighting his support for stricter rules and regulations on drilling to, as he sees it, ensure it is done safely. Wolf is also highlighting his support for economic development projects and investments in manufacturing after Corbett cut economic grant programs championed by former governors Bob Casey, Sr. and Ed Rendell.

What's Corbett's and Wolf's biggest strengths/weaknesses? 

Corbett Strength: Well, there's not really much here. Corbett is extremely unpopular (more on that later) but his biggest strength, if anything, is that he can claim he's moved to the center on some issues lately. He signed a large bipartisan transportation funding bill last year, has sought to restore education funding in the last year, stopped the state's appeal of the gay marriage ban (thus ensuring gay marriages would continue after a federal judge's decision legalized it), sort-of endorsed banning employment discrimination of LGBT Pennsylvanians, and became the only GOP governor in the country to utilize a loophole in the new federal farm/food stamp law that avoids a cut to SNAP recipients' benefits.

This effort to shift to the center -- almost certainly politically motivated -- though has failed to move Corbett's numbers. Corbett is doing quite well in fundraising though, per FEC reports analyzed by PoliticsPa.com which says "Corbett is fundraising like an incumbent", as he rakes in big money from influential businessmen across the commonwealth. In a race where Corbett is running against an extremely wealthy man like Wolf, all of the fundraising that Corbett can do only helps him.

Corbett Weakness: Where to begin? Ever since his first year in office, Corbett has been an enormously unpopular incumbent. It began with the 2011 education cuts - and of those voters who say education is the number one issue for them in this election, they break heavily for Wolf - and only went downhill from there. Corbett became embroiled in controversy in 2011-2012 as a result of the Jerry Sandusky scandal as accusations were made that the governor, when he was attorney general, stalled on investigating Sandusky (AG Kathleen Kane has cleared Corbett of wrongdoing). Further, Corbett's remarks that women should just "close their eyes" when being subject to a fetal ultrasound - which is what one anti-abortion bill in the legislature sought to do - attracted considerable negative national attention for him.

Beyond that, Corbett's controversial plans to privatize the Pennsylvania Lottery (for which he was scolded by Attorney General Kane, who called it "unconstitutional"), his budget cuts to various social services and programs for the poor, and his refusal to support a severance tax for gas drilling have created for him not only many political enemies but also a large swath of the electorate that truly dislikes him. A majority of Pennsylvanians told Franklin and Marshall pollsters at the beginning of this year that Governor Corbett does not "care" about the problems of people like them.

Wolf Strength: Mr. Wolf's biggest strength is actually Mr. Corbett's biggest weakness: running in a climate in which the Republican incumbent is deeply unpopular. However, on a personal level, Mr. Wolf proved immensely appealing to voters in the Democratic primary. His ads, in which he demonstrates that he's ostensibly a common-sense businessman who shares much of his profit with his workers and is depicted as a regular guy riding a Jeep, resonated in the primary. He is broadly perceived as likable, relatable, and easygoing. It also does not hurt that Mr. Wolf is extremely wealthy. His wealth permitted him to self-fund much of his campaign in the primary and that ability is critical in a race in which Governor Corbett is raising much money himself too from sources like the Comcast hierarchy (based in Philadelphia).

Wolf also has a fine ground game that will be of help to him. Cassandra Coleman-Corcoran, the mayor of Exeter and Senator Casey's deputy finance director, has done an excellent job in her campaigns in northeastern Pennsylvania and in her fundraising for Casey and her talent and skill in her effort for Mr. Wolf's campaign has already proven crucial and will continue to be a key factor in his success. Bill Vinsko, a Wilkes-Barre attorney who is a former congressional candidate, has also been able to utilize his extensive network of friends and supporters locally to rally support. At the legislative level, Democratic candidates for the state legislature, including incumbent Democrats running for reelection, have done all they can to mercilessly criticize Governor Corbett and to tie themselves to Mr. Wolf, which can only help Wolf's cause. In our region, state Rep. Phyllis Mundy and state Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, both very popular in their districts, endorsed Wolf in the primary thus signaling to their constituents that he was someone who shares their values. Further aiding Mr. Wolf is that quickly after the primary ended, Wolf was readily publicly embraced by Senator Casey - who is the most popular elected figure in the state - on Hardball on election night and his former primary rival Katie McGinty formed a PAC, "Fresh Start PA," that's aimed at assisting Wolf and Democrats across the state in this fall's elections. All in all, these developments indicate that Wolf has a strong backing behind him beyond merely Corbett's unpopularity and his own wealth.

Wolf Weakness: To whatever extent the national political climate has an effect in Pennsylvania, it would hurt Mr. Wolf. President Obama, despite comfortably winning Pennsylvania twice, is not very popular here anymore, nor is he popular nationally. His approval rating has dipped into the low 40s both nationwide and in Pennsylvania. Governor Corbett's website already features a photoshopped picture of Mr. Wolf's head next to the President's head. Further, Governor Corbett is portraying Mr. Wolf as the "millionaire Revenue Secretary," indicating that Wolf's massive wealth -- an issue that, in part, helped sink Mitt Romney here in 2012  -- could be a liability.


How can you help Tom Wolf? 
You can sign up to volunteer for Mr. Wolf's campaign here (where you can also find a link to donate): http://action.wolfforpa.com/page/s/volunteer.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Advice for Hillary, Democratic Unity, and Why I Love Match Game



(PHOTO: President Obama and Secretary Clinton, then both senators, hold a joint rally for the Obama campaign in Unity, New Hampshire in June 2008).

In this multi-pronged blog post, there are a few items I touch on so please forgive me but here's what's on my mind:

First of all, Hillary Clinton appears to have hit a rough patch - though definitely not a fatal one by any stretch of the imagination - as she has made some unfortunate remarks that exacerbate the questions surrounding her wealth. She first said that she and her husband were "dead broke" and then said that her family was unlike the "truly well off." There is a better way to handle these questions and Secretary Clinton would be well suited if she took advice from a source very close to her on how to tackle questions like this: President Clinton. Despite being very wealthy obviously, Clinton always responds with an effective retort such as, "I didn't ask for a tax cut" or "I don't need a tax cut," demonstrating essentially that he is supporting progressive policies like tax fairness despite the impact those policies will have on his financial well-being. Something along those lines could easily quell the issue.

The best way to squash questions regarding 'hypocrisy' of scolding wealthy elites while being wealthy is to emphasize that you're actually being selfless by supporting policies that would hurt your own finances and your class. This is of course why FDR was famously called a "traitor to his class." (And, yes, I realize that the wealthy elite doesn't mind higher income tax rates on the rich as long as you don't hit Wall Street with a financial transactions tax and stiffer rules and regulations -- but that discussion is for another day). As a political matter, there is an easy way to diffuse this using the kind of language Bill Clinton has deployed and actually this very good article on MSNBC.com I noticed just minutes after I began writing this post -- I swear, not before! -- emphasizes this exact point very well. Further, as she did on the campaign trail in the last couple months of the 2008 primary, Secretary Clinton would be wise to instead underscore that she actually did not grow up wealthy and was raised middle class thus reasonably allowing her to credibly say she empathizes with middle class struggles. This tactic was successfully deployed by President Obama in his campaigns -- i.e., "Michelle and I paid off our student loans just a few years ago" -- and by President Clinton, who trumpeted himself as the "man from Hope" in 1992. Finally though, it should be noted that these issues probably will not matter much for Secretary Clinton because for one, as Dave Weigel pointed out on Facebook this weekend, the Democratic Party is after all the party of the FDR and JFK, and second, her record of working for and advocating for vital progressive policies that help working families -- like childcare, paid family leave, universal pre-K, etc. -- will be more crucial in a campaign anyway.
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(PHOTO: President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden rally Democratic Party supporters at a 2010 Moving America Forward rally).

Second of all, in an extensive interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, President Obama made an interesting remark that caught my attention when he noted that Democratic voters are "surprisingly united" on issues such as economic inequality and wages. In the past, the President has remarked similarly on how amazingly unified congressional Democrats have been too on key issues in his presidency and the facts back up that assertion. It is indeed amazing to see such strong Democratic unity in both Congress and among Democratic voters in the Obama years. This unity exists despite the fact that elements of the media like to claim that there are massive divisions within the Democratic Party -- usually, these schisms are wildly exaggerated. It is incredible because the history of our party is one of incredible divisions. During the tenure of the last Democratic President, Bill Clinton, many Democrats in Congress voted against Clinton's major legislative achievements, like NAFTA and welfare reform, and liberal Democratic voters' disgruntlement with Clinton was far worse than any progressive disenchantment Obama has faced. In Jimmy Carter's presidency, Carter was unable to get key Democratic priorities like a consumer protection agency and health care reform through an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress thanks to divisions within his party. Carter would later write that he got along better with GOP members of Congress than with Democratic members of Congress. He faced a modestly strong primary challenge from Ted Kennedy too that was really alls bout the divisions of the party. The divisions within the Democratic Party during Lyndon B. Johnson's presidency are obviously well documented. Even more recently though, we can point to a famous example of Democratic division: the 2008 primaries!

Nevertheless, in the Obama era, such division is seemingly nonexistent. President Obama received the highest percentage of votes from Democratic voters of any president ever -- 92 percent -- and, according to public opinion polling, is the most popular president among Democratic voters ever, all Senate Democrats voted for the Recovery Act and for the Affordable Care Act, Democratic voters are overwhelmingly liberal on social issues and now even extremely unified on economic matters, and Hillary Clinton appears to be the clear frontrunner in the 2016 Democratic primaries. Why this remarkable unity? A few factors are probably at play. The GOP going far to the right and President Bush's legacy are part of it though this unity is consistent with the overall partisan polarization in the country. A very small part of it may be that the current president is quite effective at uniting various elements of the party as a consequence of begin economically progressive and socially liberal but aggressive on national security, traits that unite various factions in our party.

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(PHOTO: Panelist Richard Dawson makes a point during a taping of Match Game in 1975).

Last but not least, as the 41st anniversary of the premiere of the most popular version of Match Game is this Wednesday, I think it's appropriate I share why exactly it is that I love this game show so much. For one, few game shows in the annals of television history can boast such amazing chemistry between the host, the celebrity panelists, and the contestants. The antics on display on the set were nothing short of surprisingly hilarious entertainment that actually overshadowed the rules of the game -- a point host Gene Rayburn himself made. It is the freewheeling nature of the interaction between the outlandish Rayburn, the definitely drunk panelists, and the nervous contestants that made the show so unbelievably funny for a game show. That's why an exchange like the 1977 "school riot" episode wound up in a TV Land/TV Guide list of TV's 100 most unexpected moments - an unusual distinction given that game shows are usually seemingly carefully scripted. A huge part of this success was undeniably because of the impeccable talent of Gene Rayburn, who earned a lifetime achievement award shortly before his 1999 death and who was rightly recognized as the third greatest game show host of all-time by TV Guide. Rayburn's wild nature, somewhat surprising given his age, allowed for the genuine spontaneity on set that viewers happily embraced.

Beyond these aspects of the show, the risqué fill-in-the-blank questions and the ability of contestants and celebrities to actually say on air words like "boobs" and "bosom" reflected the relaxed cultural standards of the era in which the show hit its peak popularity: the mid-1970s. At the same time that TV sitcoms like All in the Family and Three's Company were venturing into new territory by touching on issues of race in a jocular manner or by utilizing sexual innuendo, Match Game similarly pushed the envelope on these matters thus distinguishing itself in the then-crowded game show universe. Perhaps that is why the show became a cultural staple as it captivated young Americans who rushed from school to watch the afternoon-time show and as it broke records at the time as the most popular daytime television show in American history. Lastly, though the format was kind of unusual, the latter half of the program, which relied upon previous audience surveys on fill-in-the-blank questions and stoked curiosity among viewers as to what their peers would say in response to such questions, was unique enough to even spawn a spin-off in the form of Family Feud. Given the amazing chemistry on set, its cultural significance, and the impact it has had on TV, Match Game - #4 in TV Guide's 2013 list of the 60 greatest TV game shows ever - has rightfully earned its storied place in TV history.