Famed Yankee’s skipper and player Yogi Berra famously said the game “isn’t over until it is over.” Always quotable, Berra summed up in one sentence the fact that in baseball, even in the bottom of the ninth with two out and two strikes, a team still has a chance to come back and win. It has happened often enough to prove him correct.
The same can be said for politics; the game isn’t over until it is over. Few will recall that at the beginning of 2008 conventional wisdom held the General Election would be a contest between Republican Rudy Guliani and Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton. Neither, of course, was nominated. So the early betting line is not always the winning one.
Over the past couple of years it has been an accepted political fact that Governor Tom Corbett would be a one-term governor. Coming into office facing a $4.3 billion budget deficit required the making of hard choices. Hard choices are unpopular. So too became Tom Corbett. But, events of the past couple of weeks have demonstrated the power of incumbency.
Kicking off what was arguably the best political week of his governorship, Tom Corbett – holding the hand of his grandson awash in red, white, and blue balloons – accepted the unanimous endorsement of the Republican State Committee. Incumbents of either party typically receive such a send-off, but given Tom Corbett’s consistently poor showing in the polls it is somewhat remarkable no viable candidate had emerged to challenge him.
With images of his political send-off still dancing across the commonwealth’s television screens, Governor Tom Corbett got to do something only incumbent governors get to do: deliver the state budget address. For what is essentially a state-of-the-state address, the governor’s political team brought in an experienced speech writer to polish the message. The polish put a shine on what is actually a very challenging fiscal picture facing state government. Amid the pomp and splendor of the House chamber, the governor defended his record and doled out election year goodies. His Democratic opponents were reduced to button-holing reporters in the hallways as they clamored for attention.
Then Mother Nature intervened. A devastating ice storm struck central and eastern Pennsylvania. Clad in a sweater, the governor was omnipresent on television dispensing news, advice, and comfort. True, he had no Chris Christie-like get off the beach moment, but there he was calm, confident, and in charge.
Pennsylvania Democrats being, well Pennsylvania Democrats, then handed Corbett a political gift. Their endorsement meeting devolved into a floor fight – with some actual fighting reported in the hallways – and, as a Corbett spokesman succinctly put it, they endorsed “none of the above.” No candidate achieved even 50% of the vote, let alone the super-majority required by the party’s by-laws for endorsement. That likely was a good thing, as endorsement by the state party has in the past been a kiss of death rather than a pathway to victory.
A pre-endorsement debate among the seven Democratic gubernatorial candidates also laid bare another political trap into which they have fallen. In both political parties primary voter turn-out is heavier among the extremes. For Republicans the primary voter pool is more conservative than the general election turn-out; for Democrats the primary electorate is considerably more liberal than that of the general election.
This means candidates in hotly contested primaries have to move to the extreme to win their party’s nomination. The seven would-be Democrat governors have done just that with issues such as the legalization of marijuana dominating the discussion. Whoever is nominated runs the very real risk of being unable to move back to the center far enough and fast enough to beat Tom Corbett in November.
Corbett, meanwhile, is free to moderate his position and he has done so by proposing more dollars for public education and offering up other election year spending. In short, his General Election campaign has already begun while the Democrats are engaged in a primary fight already growing more contentious.
All of this does not mean that Tom Corbett is out of electoral trouble. Recent polls show he has some serious ground to make up with the voters of Penn’s Woods. But, events of the past couple of weeks prove Yogi Berra’s truism that it isn’t over until it is over. And with the game just getting underway a lot of ball remains to be played.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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