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Tom Corbett Went From Establishment Republican to Tea Party Ally. Bad Move.

Explaining Pennsylvania's unpopular governor

Patrick Smith/Getty

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett's popularity, or lack thereof, has just hit a new low. A Public Policy Polling survey released Tuesday found his approval rating has slid to 24 percent, making him the least popular governor of the 43 states PPP has polled recently. Nearly two-thirds of Pennsylvanians disapprove of Corbett, including 51 percent of his Republican peers. If next November’s election were held today, Corbett would lose by double-digit margins to a wide array of Democratic challengers.

The poll is no outlier. Survey after survey finds that Corbett—who cruised into office two years ago as a conservative, corruption-busting prosecutor—is widely reviled in a state that, so far, has never failed to re-elect an incumbent governor.

But why? How has a mild-mannered governor like Corbett so enraged Pennsylvania’s typically placid electorate? Corbett’s own failings—from his reclusive nature to his bumbling legislative strategy—are mainly to blame. But it is also clear that Pennsylvanians, a largely moderate lot that have voted Democrat in the last six presidential elections, have little taste for truly conservative governance. In a purple state that has been steadily swinging left in recent years, Corbett looks increasingly anachronistic.

By temperament, Corbett is an establishment Republican, not a Tea Partier. But there isn’t much daylight between Corbett’s policies and those of the party’s right wing. He signed Grover Norquist’s anti-tax pledge, is fighting gay marriage in the courts, has aligned himself with the state’s growing fracking industry, and has decimated education funding. Recently, it is the school cuts that are most hurting Corbett in the polls. Three years ago, a Franklin and Marshall poll found that only four percent of Pennsylvanians considered education the state’s most pressing problem. In September, education was the top priority in the survey, with 21 percent.

It would be wrong to say moderate states like Pennsylvania have no taste for true conservatism. New Jersey’s Chris Christie is wildly popular in Philadelphia’s moderate suburbs, and Corbett may well have fared better statewide if he had managed to ram through some popular reforms like Christie’s public pension overhaul or Brian Sandoval’s shredding of teacher tenure and collective bargaining in Nevada. But Corbett hasn’t achieved anything of the sort. He’s a milquetoast conservative who has done little to improve the state’s long-term fiscal health, while maximizing pain in the here and now.

He’s also an atrocious politician. 

Corbett’s a born introvert. His wife, Susan Corbett, told me back in 2011 for a Philadelphia Magazine story that “it’s not unusual that we're at a party and Tom will be off in the corner with a dog while everybody else is chatting.” It’s not that he's totally devoid of charisma. He has striking blue eyes, wispy white hair, and he looks exactly like a Republican governor should. When he makes the effort, Corbett can be personable, even likable. But he rarely tries, it seems. He has very little personal connection to voters—a failing made all the more stark in comparison to former Democratic governor and state mascot Ed Rendell—and his relationships with Republican leaders in the statehouse are awkward at best.

Increasingly, awkwardness is Corbett’s calling card. He was last in the national eye in early October, when a local TV reporter asked him about gay marriage. His legal team had, in a court filing, likened gay marriage to an illegal union between 12-year-olds. When the reporter asked Corbett about the filing, he replied: “It was an inappropriate analogy, you know.... I think a much better analogy would have been brother and sister, don't you?” 

Corbett’s dwindling allies say that he is still adjusting to the governor’s office after a lifetime spent in the prosecutor’s chair. Corbett, they tell you, tends to see things in black and white, that he works methodically and prefers to keep his mouth shut, just like a U.S. attorney or state’s attorney general should. 

The irony there is that a case from Corbett’s past is, in the eyes of many Pennsylvanians, perhaps the single biggest black mark against him. Corbett was already governor when former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was indicted for dozens of sex crimes against young boys. The investigation, though, began while Corbett was still the attorney general, and the slow pace of the probe has led many voters to believe that Corbett pumped the brakes in order to avoid offending legions of Penn State alumni while he campaigned for governor. 

No evidence has surfaced yet that proves as much, but that hasn’t helped Corbett. And new Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane, who has a talent for making Corbett look very bad, is still investigating Corbett’s handling of the Sandusky affair. That shoe could drop at any moment. 

Many of Pennsylvania’s leading Democrats, smelling blood, have declared their intention to take on Corbett. The field includes U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz—probably the front-runner, though some consider her so liberal that she would give Corbett his best shot at re-election—Treasurer Rob McCord, former Auditor General Jack Wagner, wealthy businessman Tom Wolf, and former environmental secretary Katie McGinty, among others.

There's even chatter in GOP circles that Corbett should be convinced to step aside and make way for another Republican. Odds are, that won’t happen. Earlier this month, the state’s last three Republican governors—Mark Schweiker, Tom Ridge, and Dick Thornburgh—endorsed Corbett, and the cash advantage that comes with incumbency would be hard for the state GOP to yield. 

In other words, the party is probably stuck with Tom Corbett. The state of Pennsylvania likely is not.