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Campaign 2010: The Race for Governor

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By Craig Dimitri

It appears increasingly likely that Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato will win  the Democratic gubernatorial primary on May 18.  With only a week to go, the most recent Rasmussen tracking poll shows Onorato with 34 percent in a four-way race. 

His opponents still trail far behind: Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Hoeffel at  nine percent, and state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams and Auditor General Jack Wagner at 17 percent each.  The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus five percentage points.

The only hope for this trio of candidates is that the same poll shows 23 percent of Democrats remain undecided.  Unless Williams or Wagner can stage a late surge, Onorato's 17-point lead is likely to prevail, and not only because of its sheer size. Even if Onorato does not attract a single undecided voter, those voters are not likely coalesce behind a single one of Onorato's opponents so the 34 percent he currently holds should be enough to win a four-way contest.  

This is a substantial accomplishment, given that Onorato has never previously sought statewide office, although two of his three opponents have done so - Hoeffel and Wagner.

Hoeffel is a fixture in the Philadelphia media market, having served as a commissioner in populous and increasingly Democratic Montgomery County, as well as in the U.S. House, representing not just much of Montgomery County, but also Northeast Philadelphia.  Moreover, he has already run statewide, failing to unseat Senator Arlen Specter (then a Republican) in November 2004.

Unlike Hoeffel, Wagner has won twice.  In 2004, Wagner and Hoeffel were on the same ballot.  While Hoeffel lost to Specter by 11 percentage points, Wagner won by seven points.  Four years later, Wagner crushed his Republican opponent by 21 points.

And in an ironic twist of fate, Wagner had defeated Onorato in the primary for an Allegheny County state Senate seat back in 1994.

So how is Onorato doing it?

As Dan Hirschhorn wrote earlier in this series, money is playing an important role.  There is a phenomenon known as the "invisible primary", in which the movers and shakers and donors - two overlapping groups - cast their ballots, with their checkbooks.  And Onorato - who has the support of many of Gov. Ed Rendell's financial backers - has been crushing the field, when it comes to filling his campaign coffers.  Onorato's dominance in the hotel ballrooms and the living rooms of donors across the Keystone State accurately parallels his current wide lead in the polls.

On April 7 - the most recent date when official campaign finance reports were available - the Associated Press reported the astounding disparities between the four Democrats.  For the first quarter of 2010, Onorato reported having $6.7 million on hand.  The direct results of this abundance are showing up on your television screens on a nightly basis. 

In contrast, Williams had $1.5 million on hand, Wagner $673,000, and Hoeffel just $102,000.  In other words, the three of them combined, had $2.275 million - just about one-third of what Onorato had.  In another irony, Williams - the only other candidate unknown statewide - might very well come in second, due to three factors: he is from  Philadelphia, his strength among black voters, and his own television ads, particularly on the issue of education.

However, to say that the campaigns of Onorato and (to a lesser degree) Williams are succeeding, solely due to fund-raising, would be inaccurate.  The best financed candidates don't always win (as the fate of the recently ousted New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine has  demonstrated).  The money was a necessary condition for Onorato's strategy, since he was unknown outside Allegheny County.  But it wasn't a sufficient condition.

Regardless of how well-financed they are, candidates must convey a compelling message to the voter - whether they do it by paid advertising or free media coverage.  Without the message, they enrich media consultants and local TV stations, but they will not win at the ballot box.

Onorato's most powerful message comes across in his "New Economy" and "Record of Reform" commercials, where he cites his record in Allegheny County, as evidence that he can revive economic prosperity statewide, based on new economy staples such as health care, education and technology.  In a state that has lost industrial jobs and where the unemployment rate stood at 9 percent in March this message resonates with voters.  The money just provides the megaphone. 

 

Read: Campaign 2010: Democrats at War


Craig Dimitri is a Montgomery County resident who writes about politics and public policy.  You can e-mail him at cdimitri1@yahoo.com.

 

 

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