Bet on it.
Gov.-elect Tom Wolf is going to have a rough first year in office. He faces enormous fiscal and policy challenges, is only the second governor in modern times to have both legislative chambers controlled by the opposition party, and has to work with a legislature more ideologically conservative than any of his predecessors. Indeed, a tough first year simply reflects modern Pennsylvania political history. Since Milton Shapp in the 1970’s, every governor but one has struggled in year one.
That is the bad news for Wolf and state Democrats — the storm clouds are gathering. And during 2015 that bad news may seem very bad indeed. The good news, however, is also very good: while every governor but one in modern times has had a difficult first year, every governor but Tom Corbett has recovered and went on to a second term.
Modern gubernatorial history suggests the initial year doesn’t matter much in predicting a governor’s ultimate fate. In fact, there is even some evidence that un-mixed success in the initial year may auger re-election problems.
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Back to Shapp in 1970, all but one new Pennsylvania governor had a rocky first year in office a first year so bumpy that each was labeled a “one termer.” Yet each was re-elected. The only governor to have a tight re-election campaign, Dick Thornburgh, was also the only governor to have a solid first year.
Ed Rendell in 2003 illustrates the pattern. Rendell’s approval rating sunk as he passed a controversial 10 percent state income tax increase his first year, not securing final passage of his first budget until just before the December holiday season. In fact, during his eight years as governor, he never managed to secure the passage of a single budget within the constitutional deadline, yet, he cruised to re-election in 2006.
Similarly, Rendell’s predecessor Tom Ridge initially pursued an unpopular agenda, including tuition vouchers, and a legislative pay increase. His polling numbers sank, and “one-term Tom” posters began appearing, only to disappear after his landslide re-election in 1998.
Before Ridge, Gov. Bob Casey had an even more difficult initial year. State Republicans, enraged by campaign ads run by Casey’s campaign consultant James Carville in 1986, blocked many of Casey’s key appointments, stymied his legislative agenda, and generally made his first year an ongoing ordeal.
But no one had a rougher first year than Milton Shapp, who took office with the state facing the biggest fiscal crisis since the Great Depression. Shapp had to get not one but two state income tax proposals through the General Assembly after the state Supreme Court ruled the first one unconstitutional. For a time in August 1971, the state had no power to spend money.
Only Thornburgh, elected in 1978, had an untroubled first year, attributable less to his agenda or political skills than for his ability to manage a near catastrophic crisis. Just 10 weeks into his first term, he faced the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis. Widely applauded for his handling of the situation, Thornburgh ended his first year a popular state figure, with a well-earned national reputation. Yet, paradoxically, Thornburgh nearly lost his re-election effort three years later to a political unknown. The lesson is clear. The first-year forecasts matter little in terms of whether a governor will be re-elected.
One compelling reason is timing. What a politician does is often less important than when he or she does it. Experienced politicians usually pursue their most ambitious plans and take the greatest political risks in their first year. They make their mistakes and take their lumps early.
Experience also counts and as a term progresses, governors become better at their job, smarter about what works, and more careful of picking their fights and concentrating their political resources.
Luck also plays a part. Political skills are helpful, but a good economy is essential. A bad economy almost cost Thornburgh re-election in 1982, and greatly helped re-elect Ridge (1998) and Rendell (2006).
Ultimate success and re-election is the default position for Pennsylvania governors. It is possible for a governor to fall flat in his first year and never recover, as Corbett proved. But this is the exception and not the rule. Tom Wolf’s fate, like his long line of predecessors, will be determined not by the inevitable controversies and unpopular decisions of his first year, but what he accomplishes during the next three.