The “war on women” meme was a useful tool for Democrats in 2012. It probably wouldn’t have had as much impact on the voting had not Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin’s comments about rape and pregnancy encapsulated the stereotype of a misogynist GOP that liberals had labored so hard to publicize. But even without Akin, whose idiotic statement helped drag down many another Republican last fall, the Democratic effort to try to brand their opponents as hostile to women was a potent factor. Having worked once, it is no surprise they will be trying to duplicate that success in 2014, but assumptions of that sort when applied to individual state races may not always work out. Hence, Politico’s preview of next year’s Pennsylvania gubernatorial contest may not hinge as much on women’s issues as readers might think.
On the surface, the race for the executive suite in Harrisburg has the potential to be a repeat of what happened in Missouri when Akin’s case of hoof-in-mouth turned liberal Claire McCaskill from a certain loser to an easily re-elected incumbent. Republican Governor Tom Corbett has not only had a rocky first two years in office but has also been credited with some particularly obtuse quotes about women seeking abortion that will be easily exploited by the Democrats. His likely opponent is Representative Allyson Schwartz who has the smarts and the ability to raise the money needed to fund a campaign that will paint the otherwise dull-as-dishwater Corbett as a Keystone State version of Akin.
But there are two problems with this scenario that may turn the war on women routine on its head. First is the very real possibility that Corbett will not survive a primary challenge next year. The other is that the assumption that a pro-choice woman will be more than a match for a pro-life man in Pennsylvania is far from certain. Particularly when the women is not just an advocate for reproductive choice but someone who made a living at what her opponents will call an abortion mill. Under these circumstances, there’s really no telling what may happen next year in Pennsylvania.
Let’s start with the fact that Corbett, who won easily in the big Republican year of 2010, may be the most vulnerable Republican governor in the nation. Corbett is seen as a weak leader who has done little to help the state’s economy and has been blasted by both the left and the right for being part of the same old partisan establishment problem in Harrisburg rather than the solution.
However, Politico focused more on Corbett’s unfortunate comments about abortion than any of that. By itself Corbett’s support last year for a bill that would have required women to have an ultrasound before an abortion would have been enough for the Democrats to play the war on women theme. But he made it worse when he said that any women who didn’t want to look at the image of a living fetus produced by the machine could simply “close your eyes.” You don’t have to be a political genius to understand how opponents for the rest of his career will hang this around his neck.
Yet Corbett’s biggest problem is his association with the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. It took the state attorney general’s office three years to charge pedophile Jerry Sandusky in the case after allegations came to their attention. Most of that period encompasses the period when Corbett was attorney general before being elected governor. It’s far from clear that this was the result of any wrongdoing, but Pennsylvanians are so mad about the case and the impact that it had on the beloved Penn State football team and the late Joe Paterno that anyone even tangentially involved in it has become political poison. The probe of Corbett’s conduct in the case ordered by current Attorney General Katherine Kane, who is a Democrat, is a potential game changer in the governor’s race.
Though defeating an incumbent governor is a formidable task, this knowledge has penetrated Republican ranks to the extent that a primary upset of Corbett is not out of the question. The most likely candidate to oppose him is an old foe, Montgomery County Commissioner Bruce Castor, who was narrowly beaten by Corbett in a 2004 attorney general primary. Corbett has taken full advantage of his incumbency to raise enough money from major corporate backers—including from some Democrats—to be able to outspend any opponent inside or outside his party. But if Castor can position himself as the reform/Tea Party favorite in a GOP contest, all the pundits’ assumptions about Corbett being the Akin of 2014 go out the window.
But even if Corbett does survive a bitter primary, Schwartz has her own set of vulnerabilities. Pennsylvania may be in the northeast and has not voted for a Republican for president in a generation. But outside of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, it is a generally rural state with a strong pro-gun culture as well as a significant pro-life constituency. Democrats do best when perceived as pragmatic centrists (as was the case with former Governor Ed Rendell) and/or have pro-life and pro-gun stands (as remains the case with Senator Bob Casey Jr.).
As Politico rightly notes, social issues will cut both ways in a Corbett-Schwartz tussle. Schwartz is not well known statewide and is viewed as a stereotypical Philadelphia-area liberal even if she claims to be a moderate on fiscal issues. In 2000, she lost badly in a Senate primary to a little known Pittsburgh-area congressman largely because of her limited appeal in the rest of the state. Though her stature has grown since then, it’s not clear that has changed much.
While her background working at the Planned Parenthood-run Elizabeth Blackwell Center endears her to liberal women, it could be a liability in a general election. Though most voters are not sympathetic to extreme anti-abortion statements, what liberals in the media often forget is that abortion is still viewed with distaste even by many who would not wish to repeal Roe v. Wade. That will complicate any effort to rerun the war on women theme.
If all politics really is local, then national reporters looking to Pennsylvania as turning on a national issue like abortion may be in for a surprise. The Sandusky case may trump it and remove Tom Corbett from the equation before Democrats have the chance to fit him for the Todd Akin clown suit.