By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
Across the country, Republicans have tried to tie Democratic candidates to President Obama, hoping to tap into a conservative electorate frustrated with his policies.
In Pennsylvania, Democrats have their own toxic chief executive to use as campaign fodder against GOP hopefuls — embattled Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
That strategy, though, might not be so easy to execute in the campaign for the 26th state Senate District in Delaware and Chester counties, a hotly contested race that could have implications for control of the chamber.
That’s because Republican nominee Tom McGarrigle sharpened his moderate credentials when he proposed a 4 percent severance tax on natural gas drilling to supplement education funding. That counters Corbett’s refusal to institute a tax popular in the southeastern corner of the state and taps into a feeling there that school funding has been neglected the past four years.
MCGARRIGLE AVOIDS CORBETT TIES: With his support of a severance tax to fund education, Republican nominee Tom McGarrigle has a shield against attempts to tie him to unpopular Gov. Tom Corbett.
“Corbett made a pledge about taxes, and he lived up to it,” said McGarrigle, the chairman of the Delaware County Council. “Unfortunately, the state has lost, I feel, a lot of money — tax revenue — that could have went to education.”
That policy position, which aligns closely with Democratic gubernatorial Tom Wolf’s proposal, has fed into an interesting aspect of the race — that the Republican nominee “has pretty much tried to disassociate himself from Governor Corbett,” said J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University.
The severance tax proposal has helped blunt Democratic nominee John Kane’s attempts to tie Corbett to McGarrigle, who has been running more on his experience as a “can-do” candidate rather than an ideological Republican, Leckrone said.
“It’s a more moderate-type area, and I think the ability to be able to say, ‘I’m an independent Republican who will think for himself and do what’s best for my constituents,’ really helps McGarrigle,” Leckrone said.
Even Kane concedes it makes it more difficult to use Corbett’s unpopularity against his opponent, though he counts McGarrigle as a supporter of the governor.
A poll commissioned by Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, also showed McGarrigle with a 52-36 advantage earlier this month — notable considering Corbett trails Wolf 47-44 in the same survey.
Kane embraces pressure of underdog role
Kane has relished the role of underdog. He’s still confident he can grab the seat that’s held by retiring Republican state Sen. Ted Erickson and said his campaign’s internal polling shows “the wind behind me right now.”
A win would be huge for Democrats, considering the GOP has controlled the seat for more than a quarter-century. It could also help eat into Republicans’ four-seat advantage in the state Senate.
“I really believe this is a perfect opportunity,” Kane said. “Tom Wolf’s doing very well here in Delaware County, and I think people are ready for change. I think they’re tired of the career politicians and the Republican machinery out here in Delaware County.”
KANE LIKES THE PRESSURE: Democratic nominee John Kane might be an underdog, but he thinks the 26th State Senate District is ripe for the taking.
While running for Senate, Kane has done his best to drag Corbett into the race, saying he supports a “reversal” of the governor’s agenda.
In doing so, the business manager of Pennsylvania Plumbers Local 690, Kane has positioned himself as the blue-collar candidate. He opposes various privatization efforts backed by Corbett and Republican lawmakers, saying they would eliminate good-paying jobs.
Kane’s labor background could also play a key role on Election Day, given that unions tend to turn out, Leckrone said.
Policy issues overshadowed
Like McGarrigle, Kane supports a severance tax to fund education. The two disagree on how to address public pension reform, with McGarrigle in favor of putting new state hires into a 401(k)-style plan, while Kane would rather see the current defined benefit plan remain.
“I think a defined pension plan is important for everybody,” Kane said. “When did that become wrong?”
Kane also would like to close the Delaware loophole and see more Keystone Opportunity Zones — essentially tax havens for business — in his district.
McGarrigle has called for a new education funding formula and reforms in Harrisburg and has pointed to his experience as a business owner, township official and now county councilman as evidence he has the best resume for the Capitol.
Those sorts of policy issues and experience debates, though, have been overshadowed in recent weeks as the race veered into the nasty.
There’s the ongoing controversy surrounding political contributions that Kane accepted from the Ironworkers Local 401, which had 10 members indicted on charges they used violent tactics.
Kane’s campaign accused McGarrigle of ginning up false allegations of union intimidation, while the Republican’s campaign said the same about Democratic criticism of political magnets that did not disclose who paid for them.
And the campaign veered into awkward territory, too, after a Maryland woman came forward to say she was Kane’s daughter, describing him as never involved in her life and criticizing the candidate for running ads that portrayed him as a family man.
Kane declined to talk about that issue this week, while McGarrigle called it “an issue between a father and a daughter” and said he felt it best not to discuss it.
McGarrigle has advantage, but race still competitive
While the mudslinging side of the race probably won’t help Kane, Leckrone still sees the race as more competitive than the Pileggi poll indicates. Much of the final outcome will be determined by how much Corbett drags down the ticket, Leckrone said.
So far, that hasn’t seemed a major problem for McGarrigle.
While acknowledging Election Day could still bring a surprise, G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College, said he knows of internal polls that show McGarrigle with a lead.
“I haven’t seen anything that indicates to me that we’re likely that seat changes hands,” Madonna said.
Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.