Pennsylvania stands at the edge of a historic moment.
For the first time in modern state history, a large field of competitive gubernatorial candidates awaits an impending spring primary battle that will allow one of them to take on an incumbent governor in the fall.
History-making? Certainly. But, otherwise, a gubernatorial primary like most others. The Democratic candidates running against incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett will face the same strategic factors candidates do in all competitive primaries.
Collectively, these five factors will determine what really matters in the May primary.
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Money, lots of it: Pennsylvania is a quintessential electronic media state. Social media notwithstanding, no statewide presence can be achieved without raising prodigious amounts of cash.
Gov. Ed Rendell raised $42 million in 2002 and $30 million for his re-election in 2006. Corbett spent $24 million in his initial election in 2010, and his losing opponent, Dan Onorato, spent $20 million.
For the Democratic primary in 2014, the admission fee is minimally $5 million, and the winner will spend $10 million or more. Politics these days is many things — but it is not cheap.
Political geography: Geography, not demographics, has been destiny for many statewide elections in modern times.
Until recently, the geography that mattered was western Pennsylvania, where voters tended to vote disproportionately for western candidates. More recently, the geography that matters has been growing in southeastern Pennsylvania, where voters are migrating from the Republican to the Democratic Party.
But in the 2014 Democratic primary none of eight announced candidates hails from the western part of the state. Inevitably, then, the Democratic nominee will be a southeasterner running against a westerner, incumbent Tom Corbett, setting up a classic east-versus-west struggle.
Absence of issues: The harmony among top-tier Democratic candidates on issues is striking.
They probably agree on 85 percent to 90 percent of the issues likely to dominate the campaign. Mostly culturally liberal on fiscal matters, they advocate an aggressive economic development and job creation program, including extending long-term unemployment benefits.
On other policies, they make increased education funding a core issue and agree on strengthening environmental policies, but generally support fracking in the natural gas industry.
Amid this universe of unanimity the contending candidates must somehow find a way to make salient distinctions between and among themselves. Ironically, this agreement on issues may produce a campaign less about issues and more about the personal traits and backgrounds of the candidates.
The risks of negative advertising: With issue differences scarce, the personalities of the candidates will loom large. Voters will be looking for someone who looks and sounds “gubernatorial.”
Candidate experience will count as voters decide if they want someone with a business background, legislative experience, private-sector background, etc. Most essential will be how candidates demonstrate the skills necessary to lead the state during difficult times.
The lack of issue differences will make ad hominem attacks on opponents more likely and more dangerous. A nasty, negative and fractious Democratic primary could be a fatal blow to the party’s hopes to unseat Corbett in November.
Gender politics: The dearth of female state officeholders proved a huge plus for Attorney General Kathleen Kane in her impressive 2012 victory.
Pennsylvanians at long last seem ready to support female candidates in statewide races. Indeed, in the 2014 Democratic primary, it’s widely expected that gender will play a large role, with perhaps three women on the ballot, two of them considered top-tier candidates by most.
How increased electoral support for women plays out is as crucial as it is difficult to forecast. On one hand, the female vote is likely to be large. Conversely, multiple female candidates might divide much of it.
The irony is palpable. For years, potential women didn’t run because it seemed they couldn’t win; now that Kane has shown they can win, more women are running — and potentially could lose because of it.
The rookie factor: The intangible that may trump everything else is a piece of pedestrian politics that probably has won more statewide races than any other — the skills and organizational experience that come from running in earlier campaigns.
Pennsylvania is a huge, diverse and complex state not noted for being kind to rookie candidates for governor. Most successful gubernatorial candidates have run (and lost) once, twice or more times at many levels. Bob Casey Sr. actually won the governorship on his fourth effort; Tom Ridge had long served in Congress; and Ed Rendell had won four elections in Philadelphia before winning the governorship.
The experience of running seems to provide an edge to most candidates. Of the candidates running this year Rob McCord has run twice statewide and Allyson Schwartz once. Although some of the other candidates have run for office, none has run a statewide campaign.
Finally, there are some wild cards of uncertain impact in play. The most important of these may be the influence of union and party endorsements. In modern politics, endorsements are often disregarded by voters and devalued by campaigns.
Nevertheless, they can still matter and could play a large role in this race with its large number of candidates. In a relatively low-turnout primary, endorsements could in fact win it all.