Sunday, September 17, 2006

Pennsylvania Governor Race

Race of the Day

September 17, 2006
51 Days Until Election Day

Pennsylvania Governor

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Blue State (East)

Outlook: Leans Democrat

As 2006 began, the Pittsburgh Steelers were marching towards a Super Bowl championship and their Hall of Fame former Wide Receiver Republican Lynn Swann looked like he might be on his way towards marching towards the Governor’s Residence in Harrisburg. As winter turned to spring and summer however, incumbent Democrat Ed Rendell, a diehard fan of the Philadelphia Eagles managed to regain his footing and shifted the momentum of the game. As the fourth quarter now begins, Swann has an outside chance to get back in the game, but it will take a miracle drive or two and perhaps an onside kick.

Pennsylvania has a lengthy history of reelecting Governors to two four-year terms and then seeing the opposition party take the office when the races are open. Rendell took advantage of that trend in 2002, relying on the very strong support he enjoyed in the Philadelphia metropolitan area, where he had served as Mayor of the city, which was enough to overcome Republican strength in other parts of the state. Rendell’s term has not been without its share of problems though, mostly related to local and state issues, such as a controversial legislative pay raise signed by the Governor and the consummate big city politician, saw his job performance numbers take a serious downward trend.

Some people scoffed as Lynn Swann, the former professional football player started taking steps to enter the race as a Republican. After Swann retired from the NFL, he stayed active in business and philanthropic areas, and as the appointed volunteer Chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. He primarily stayed in the public eye though as a sideline commentator for NFL and NCAA football for ABC Sports. While Swann’s Republican leanings and interest in politics was not a secret, many considered him somewhat of an open book and as a candidate who would likely be out of his element in a statewide political campaign.

Even before Swann officially entered the race however, his campaign began to pick up momentum and influential endorsements around the state. By the time he actively started campaigning for the job, his team had managed to surprise most political observers, and his nomination was looked upon as being somewhat inevitable. In fact, two serious contenders for the Republican nomination would eventually withdraw in favor of Swann, including a former Lt. Governor, who had been the party’s nominee for the post in 1986. It was clearly good news for Swann that he would not be faced with the prospect of a potentially damaging Republican primary, but others questioned whether the first time candidate might have actually benefited from some “pre-season” scrimmages which could have improved his political reputation and might have made him a stronger candidate for the general election.

Around the time of Swann’s ascent in Keystone State politics, the Steelers were very much in the public consciousness and Swann benefited from that association and the nostalgia of his run with the team during their previous Super Bowl championships. He was introduced to the crowd at Super Bowl XL and received a rousing ovation from the Black and Gold faithful. More significantly, polls had begun to show Swann gradually gaining considerable ground on Rendell, to the point, where he was believed to eventually have a lead. Swann was praised for his energetic and charismatic work on the campaign stump, even if his presentation might have been somewhat thin of policy details. Nonetheless, Republicans around the country became very enthused about the Swann campaign and the prospect of a major state being governed by an African-American conservative, one of three such candidates running this year in high profile races. To those who questioned Swann’s alleged lack of qualifications for the office, Republicans cited the examples of the past Gubernatorial elections of Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

One the hoopla surrounding the Steelers began to die down, and once Swann was safely established as the GOP nominee, his problems began to take hold. In some national television appearances on news programs, Swann was believed to show a less than spectacular grasp on some issues and he began to have a hard time shaking the perception of simply being a celebrity candidate running on little else but a name. Rendell continued to raise vast amounts of money and has spent much of the past several months having the television airwaves left to himself as he attempted to define Swann to the state’s electorate. As the months progressed, Rendell’s job performance and popularity numbers significantly rebounded, and he has moved ahead of Swann in the polls, where he now leads by about 15 points on average. Rendell, perhaps realizing that this might be still be his toughest race ever, has made statements recently in which he has disavowed any plans to run for President in 2008 or for any other office, if reelected as Governor.

Swann clearly has his work cut out for him, but he has gone out of his way to present some very specific issue plans and proposals and has just gone on the airwaves with his own television since the last batch of polls have been released. The Republican will hope for a strong turnout among conservatives and people angry about the pay-raise, and other issues, who happened to turn out in heavy numbers to oust several prominent Pennsylvania Republicans who had supported the measure in party primaries. Swann may have gotten less of an advantage from that, since he had endorsed a couple of those Republican incumbents who went on to be defeated, but since Rendell signed the unpopular pay raise, Swann might make some headway in presenting himself as the candidate running against the status quo. He will have his work cut out for him though, as Rendell’s considerable political network is sure to generate a huge vote total of the Philadelphia area, which could overwhelm increased Republican strength elsewhere in the state. Additionally, Swann will have to fight for the headlines with the contestants in the state’s rapidly tightening U.S. Senate contest, which seems to have surpassed the Rendell vs. Swann race as the premier political event in Pennsylvania.

Something dramatic is probably going to be needed for Swann to once again come from behind and surpass Rendell. Perhaps some strong debate performances, in which he would greatly surpass expectations, (which may not be extremely difficult given the rap that Democrats have tried to lay on him as not ready for prime time) could help turn the tide. A little bit of good news for Swann was the failure of a wealthy Independent candidate, who had been running on an anti-pay raise and anti-status quo platform, to manage to stay on the ballot. That candidate was regarded as someone whose support would have hurt Swann more than it would have hurt Rendell.

As the campaign heads for a finale in 51 days, Rendell clearly is out in front of his opponent and seems to have the support and campaign money to continue the trend of Pennsylvania Governors being reelected to a second term. However, some polls still show his support at just about 50 percent, meaning that there is still some time and some space for Swann to catch the political equivalent of the Hail Mary pass. He might also hope that now that football season is once again underway, and the Steelers are likely to have another strong season, he can recapture some of the magic of last fall and winter. Pundits such as Charlie Cook and Larry Sabato are apparently still classifying the race as “Leans Democrat.” The clock is ticking though for Swann to prove he still has a viable chance to win, before the inevitability factor sets in for Rendell.

Perhaps the most optimistic news for Swann might be that if he manages to make a race out of things on Election Day, he will be considered the party’s frontrunner for the nomination once again in 2010, where he would be a more seasoned candidate, and perhaps in a great position to benefit from the second part of the Pennsylvania Gubernatorial trend, that has the office switching between parties every eight years.

Swann campaign link:

2006 Governor races predicted thus far: 12 D, 16 R
Post-election total of Governors predicted thus far: 20 D, 22 R