For months, several ambitious Pennsylvania Democrats have been courting powerful party kingmakers, hoping to convince them that they’re the best candidate to take on incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett next year.
But that solicitous carousel was upended earlier this month, when one of the most influential party bosses rebuffed them all to stand by Corbett in 2014.
Comcast Executive Vice President David L. Cohen, a longtime political confidant of former Gov. Ed Rendell, stunned Pennsylvania Democrats and Republicans alike when he announced he was supporting Corbett’s as yet undeclared re-election campaign.
It was an earth-shattering coup for Corbett, who has endured months of abysmal approval ratings and open speculation about his viability as a candidate. And it sent a clear message that the governor means to hold what he’s won.
“It’s obviously hugely important to Corbett,” said Franklin & Marshall College pollster G. Terry Madonna. “There’s a message in there” for primary challengers.
The other contenders
One probable target of a message is persistent Corbett critic Bruce Castor, the Republican Montgomery County Commissioner who has hinted intensely that he’ll provide a primary challenge for the governor.
Instead of being intimidated, Castor seemed invigorated by the news.
“That someone who raised $1.2 million for Barack Obama is now financing and endorsing Gov. Corbett speaks for itself, and makes even clearer the need for a true Republican leader committed to taking on the entrenched liberal special interests that have held our state back,” he said.
But where Castor and other dissatisfied state Republicans haven’t appeared cowed by Corbett’s big donor acquisition, the gubernatorial ambitions of Democrats state Treasurer Rob McCord, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, and former state revenue Secretary Tom Wolf, were immediately cast in doubt.
And other Democratic challengers with less robust financial prospects – such as declared dark horse candidates John Hanger and Cumberland County minister Max Myers, or possible X-factor candidate Joe Sestak – seemed even less likely candidates given that some of the donor cash they’ll need has been promised to the GOP.
Corbett’s low numbers
Senior state party officials spent several nervous days trying to figure out what affect Cohen’s announcement would have. Their biggest fear was that the brave hearts of their prospective gubernatorial field could turn faint with Cohen’s switch.
They’ve since calmed down. Now party leaders readily admit that such unexpected haymakers will be part of the rough-and-tumble of the 2014 gubernatorial race.
Political observers say Democrats’ initial knee-jerk apprehension was largely unfounded.
Robin Kolodny, an expert on political parties at Temple University, said the Cohen announcement was inconsequential to prospective Democratic challengers.
“If I were any of these Democratic candidates, I wouldn’t let that bother me one little bit,” Kolodny said. “This governor’s popularity ratings are so far down that it’s almost too delicious for the Democrats to consider.”
A Franklin & Marshall College poll released earlier this month found just 26 percent of registered Pennsylvania voters rated Corbett as good or excellent. And a Quinnipiac University poll released around the same time found 42 percent of registered voters disapproving of Corbett’s performance.
“The biggest indicator of anything is whether Corbett’s job performance numbers can rise,” said Madonna, who oversaw the F&M poll.
Adding fuel to Corbett’s popularity fire, Thursday University of Virginia political guru Larry Sabato counted Pennsylvania as one of just six toss-up gubernatorial races in the country.
“While Corbett has major problems, history may be on his side since he was just elected in 2010,” Sabato wrote, alluding to voters tendency toward two-term governors. “But these ‘rules’ of politics get broken sooner or later, and Corbett is sorely testing this rule.”
Reshaping the field
Still, prominent Pennsylvania Democrats acknowledge that Cohen’s Corbett support could shape the gubernatorial field.
“It would not, however, affect the explorations of top-tier or ‘real’ candidates,” argued T.J. Rooney, the former party chairman.
Others, such as Philadelphia power attorney and state party boss Marcel Groen, dismissed Cohen’s cross-party backing as a common practice among senior corporate executives.
“He is an officer in one of Pennsylvania’s major corporations,” Groen said. “Sometimes business and politics collide a little. But I expect David to continue to be helpful for the Democratic candidates going forward as he has always been, including our gubernatorial candidate next year.”
Influential party media consultant Larry Ceisler was also pragmatic about Cohen’s defection.
“Taking on an incumbent is not for the faint of heart,” Ceisler said. “But at the same time, David is a very thoughtful political analyst and if he does not see a clear path for a Democratic challenger at this time, his opinion is one that people respect.”
The impact on donors
Whether Cohen siding with Corbett scares off any candidates, any substantive affect of his support may come from other high level party contributors responsible for the $20 million most party figures say it will take to unseat Corbett.
“It is with the people who will be asked to raise that general election money that Cohen’s opinion counts the most,” Ceisler added.
It’ll be needed to counter the $30-40 million that braggadocios state Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason declared the GOP would raise to keep keep Corbett in office.
And any money Cohen lends to the effort or helps procure for the governor’s second term effort will be a net loss for any would be Democratic challengers. Cohen has reportedly already hosted a January fundraiser for Corbett at his home.
However Kolodny said there are plenty of other Democratic power donors for prospective gubernatorial candidates to solicit.
“It assumes that David Cohen has Svengali-like powers and that he’s able to convince his friends into following him,” she said. “Donors aren’t just going to to be motivated by one person in their social network’s choices. And there are some people, when a certain kind of candidate comes on the scene, they’ll throw all they’ve got at them.”
“Is he a significant person, yeah,” Kolodny said of Cohen. “But that doesn’t mean that other contributors are going to follow him blindly and take this as some kind of sign that Democrats can’t regain the governor’s mansion.”
McCord and Schwartz haven’t taken Cohen’s support of Corbett as determinative writing on the wall, according to supporters.
“There are numerous decision-making points in the process and this is a very small one in the grand scheme of things,” said Mark Nevins, a political strategist aligned with McCord.
“Our supporter universe is very broad and very deep and the decision of one Democratic donor isn’t going to really have any material impact on our ability to raise money for any kind of future endeavor,” he added.
Despite a long-standing friendship with Cohen, Schwartz wasn’t affected by his surprise choice, said chief-of-staff Rachel Magnuson.
“Nor should it for anybody considering this,” Magnuson said. “It’s about the citizens of Pennsylvania and their desire and hunger for new leadership.”
Surprisingly, Cohen’s backing of Corbett also has Republican detractors. Though likely few in number, they say his embrace of a cross-party donor defector is evidence that the governor has lost his ideological bearings and is desperate to retain his office.
“This hurts Tom Corbett with Republican primary voters,” conservative activist Bob Guzzardi said via email. “With this kind of Democratic money, Tom Corbett’s second term will be Ed Rendell’s third term.”
And it’s that internal GOP dissatisfaction with Corbett that help’s make the governor extremely vulnerable regardless of who finances his campaign, argued Temple’s Kolodny.
“I can’t remember a time when people were as excited in both parties to dump the incumbent,” she said.