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GOP Needs a Primary in Pennsylvania

In the wake of the government shutdown, some Tea Party supporters who are frustrated at the way their tactic not only failed but also hurt the conservative movement have been lashing out at so-called establishment Republicans who warned that this is exactly what would happen. The calls for primary challenges against GOP incumbents may or may not be an empty threat in some cases, as Tea Party public enemy Lindsey Graham of South Carolina leads any potential challenger by a mile. Others like Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky may have a fight on their hands. However, there is one state in which an establishment Republican seems to be skating to the general election without an opponent. In Pennsylvania, there are still no announced challengers to Governor Tom Corbett, who will be facing the voters next November. But this isn’t something that party regulars should be celebrating.

The latest poll of Pennsylvania voters brings sobering news for the GOP. With a year to go before the midterm election, Corbett’s approval ratings are so bad, it’s hard to see how any Democrat, no matter how liberal or out of touch with many of the state’s voters they may be, could avoid beating the Republican (he trailed all five potential challengers in a survey conducted last spring). According to the Franklin and Marshall College poll of the state’s voters, only 19 percent of Pennsylvanians think he’s doing an excellent or good job while 76 percent think he’s done a fair or poor job. While all politicians, both national and statewide, fair poorly in the survey, there’s no denying that the governor appears to be the most unpopular man in the Keystone State. But nobody in the Tea Party or the more mainstream elements of the Republican Party can be found at present to contest Corbett’s nomination. There are reasons why it is politically dangerous to challenge an incumbent governor, but if Corbett is the GOP standard bearer next year, Democrats will be odds-on favorites to take back the statehouse and the legislature after being swept out of Harrisburg in 2010.

Even if 2014 turns out to be a big Republican year due to anger about the ObamaCare fiasco rather than being one in which the Democrats will be able to cash in disgust over the government shutdown, Corbett’s unpopularity appears to be invulnerable to any positive trends for the GOP. The reasons for this are not that complicated. During his time as governor, Corbett has shown a tin ear to public opinion and alienated both liberals and conservatives. Unlike Chris Christie in neighboring New Jersey, he hasn’t established himself as a force for more accountable government or even as a truth teller. But no matter what else he had done, his role in the Penn State University sex crime scandal (he was attorney general when charges were not followed up) would doom his chances for reelection. In a state where support for Penn State football and the legacy of the late coach Joe Paterno are akin to an established religion, anyone who played any part in that sordid tale is political poison, no matter how tangential their involvement.

In other words, if the GOP is to hold Pennsylvania next year, Corbett has got to go. While national Republican institutions are loath to involve themselves in statehouse elections, especially where an incumbent is involved, the negative consequences for the party are unavoidable. A Corbett-fueled Democrat landslide in Pennsylvania next year could put in place a governor who also is the incumbent and likely the favorite in 2018. That will mean the next crucial process for drawing the state’s congressional districts could be in the control of the Democrats, something that could radically alter the favorable lines concocted by a GOP legislature and governor after 2010.

It is to be conceded that the talent pool for Republicans in Pennsylvania is shallow. The only viable alternatives are members of Congress who either a) want no part of Harrisburg, or b) may be tainted by public anger at Washington. Tea Party figure Tom Smith is one name put about as a challenger to Corbett, but it’s hard to see why he would generate any enthusiasm after his lackluster losing performance against Senator Bob Casey last year.

Nevertheless, Pennsylvania Republicans are badly in need of a gubernatorial primary, but Corbett’s party establishment ties have so far been enough to scare off challengers. Unless that changes, the GOP can kiss control of a crucial state goodbye.