By Chris Freind
The GOP tidal wave was massive, as Republicans won from coast-to-coast. Preeminent among them was a man who, after achieving a stunning 10-point victory in America’s sixth-largest state, instantly became a leading contender for vice president — and perhaps one day even something higher.
It was 2010, and Tom Corbett had just become governor of the critically important swing state of Pennsylvania. With near-record Republican majorities in the Legislature, he had it all, poised to usher in a new era of prosperity and help the Keystone State regain its former glory.
Four short years later, Corbett was absolutely humiliated by being the only Republican incumbent in the country to fall, and the first governor in modern Pennsylvania history to lose re-election. Even more unfathomable, he lost in the biggest GOP landslide since Herbert Hoover was president.
Now, two words say it all: “Tom who?”
Let’s put the results in perspective:
Republicans gained control of the U.S. Senate by flipping nine seats (Louisiana’s runoff election is a done deal), and possibly, though not likely, 10, as Virginia’s race is extremely close. Congressional Republicans added to their majority, controlling more seats than at any time since 1932.
In Pennsylvania, senate Republicans bolstered their ranks by winning three seats, now controlling 60 percent of that chamber. And the House GOP picked up eight seats, standing at a whopping 119 members (102 is a majority).
Most embarrassing for Corbett is that every other incumbent governor won. The GOP was even victorious in the deep “blue” Democratic strongholds of Massachusetts, Maryland, and President Obama’s home state of Illinois.
But there is a silver lining. Corbett’s defeat — one entirely of his own making — can serve as a blueprint for what not to do. And make no mistake. He didn’t lose because he was too far right, as the left propagates (the overwhelming GOP gains prove that). Nor was it the (incorrect) perception that he cut public education spending. Such simplifications would be too easy. The loss was an across-the-board failure by a governor way out of his league, one who should never have run in the first place, and certainly shouldn’t have been renominated by his out-of-touch party hierarchy.
Here’s a post-mortem looking at the real reasons for Tom Corbett’s defeat. Regardless of party affiliation, failure to learn from these mistakes will result in history repeating itself.
1. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Chairman of the Republican Governors’ Association (RGA), said it best discussing the election: “We had great candidates … governors who get things done win votes. Rick Scott in Florida, Paul LePage in Maine, Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Snyder in Michigan.”
Noticeable absent was Corbett, because, using Christie’s rationale, Corbett was A. a terrible candidate and B. he didn’t “get things done.” It doesn’t get any clearer than that.
Sidenote: An issue that could dog Christie is why, as RGA chairman, he gave $6 million in donor money to a Corbett campaign that was beyond hopeless — especially when that money may well have been enough to propel Republican candidates to victory in Connecticut (15,000 flipped votes would have changed the outcome) and Rhode Island (6,000 votes). Fiscal responsibility isn’t limited to government, and throwing that amount of good money after bad was seriously irresponsible.
2. Corbett seems to truly believe he fought gallantly, sacrificing himself by doing the right things for Pennsylvania. He said, “I am proud of what we did,” and complained that he was hurt by taking on issues “no one else would touch.”
Sorry, but that’s bull. He didn’t “do” anything. Getting blown out doesn’t earn Tom Corbett the right to conveniently write his own flowery epitaph.
Here’s the truth behind Corbett’s historic defeat:
He didn’t govern as a conservative, nor moderate. He didn’t govern at all.
He failed miserably at his two big initiatives: pension reform and liquor privatization. Despite the vast majority of Pennsylvanians favoring both, he continuously alienated Republican legislative leaders and got nothing.
His communication and oratory skills, comparatively, made John McCain look like Daniel Webster.
He disingenuously trumpeted his “achievement” of balancing the budget all four years. Hello? The budget gets balanced every year, no matter who’s in power, because doing so is a constitutional requirement. People saw right through that gimmick.
He spent four weeks on the campaign trail trying to undo four years of silence on the education issue. Way too little, too late, as he was forever branded an enemy of public education. Making matters worse, he failed to enact any education reforms.
His claim of not raising taxes is patently false. Among his several tax increases, the gasoline tax he strongly championed will, when fully phased in, give Pennsylvanians the highest fuel prices in the nation — by far. This job-killing tax flies in the face of his campaign rhetoric claiming to have helped “free enterprise” thrive.
And he made no effort to lower some of the nation’s highest corporate taxes, keeping Pennsylvania’s business climate near the bottom of the barrel.
He talked about being fiscally responsible, yet gave sweetheart deals to the state’s public sector unions, and used taxpayer money to build ships in Philadelphia that had no buyers, and a new stadium for the Yankees’ AAA baseball team. And his awarding of lucrative state contracts to big-dollar campaign contributors rivaled that of former Gov. Ed Rendell.
He resembled Don Quixote for whimsical pursuits of irrelevant issues, from attempting to privatize the lottery and outsource its management to a foreign firm (why?) to frivolously suing the NCAA for its sanctions against Penn State — which Corbett himself had approved.
He abandoned his signature issues of Voter ID and banning gay marriage, infuriating his base while not gaining himself a single “moderate” vote.
He strong-armed the Republican State Committee to endorse a candidate for U.S. Senate who had supported Barack Obama and former Democratic Congressman Joe Sestak, angering the GOP rank-and-file.
Above all, he could not shake the biggest albatross around his neck: The wide perception that his handling of the Jerry Sandusky investigation was politically motivated. Thousands of former supporters could no longer back a man whom they felt prolonged a child predator’s time on the streets. And Corbett’s steadfast refusal to answer reasonable questions on that issue incensed many voters that much more.
If you didn’t know better, listening to Tom Corbett’s concession speech gave the impression that Pennsylvania’s problems were unique — that no other states faced the same types of education, transportation and fiscal issues. But as we know, they all do. So how could Republican governors in those states “get things done,” but Tom Corbett struck out on all counts?
Because he lacked the attributes that make for an effective Governor: competence, transparency, effective communication, being scandal-free, and, above all, trustworthiness.
Got that, governor-elect Wolf? Your 15 minutes have just begun. Good luck.