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Governor's rebound in polls follows change in tone, strategy

Written by Marc Levy/The Associated Press | May 20, 2017 1:47 PM
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Photo by Ben Allen/WITF

Gov. Tom Wolf gestures to the Interstate 283/Route 283 interchange behind him, where traffic often backs up during rush hour. The interchange will be reconfigured as part of a reconstruction of 6 miles of Route 283.

(Harrisburg) -- Things weren't going well for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.

The Democrat's first 15 months in office were consumed by an ugly budget battle with GOP lawmakers, and his public approval ratings showed it. His dealings with the Legislature became toxic. Whispers of "one-term Tom" rose.

Then Wolf changed strategy, and his ratings rebounded.

"That's where the governor has made a smart, strategic move," said Luzerne County Sen. John Yudichak, a moderate Democrat. "To say, 'I realize it's a divided government, but I'm not going to contribute to the divisiveness. I'm going to present my ideas, I'm going to let Republicans come up with their ideas, but I'm not going to be aggressive in creating confrontation,' and that has been reflected in his numbers."

The 2018 general election is still 18 months away, when voters will decide whether to send Wolf back for a second term.

Two Republicans are seeking the party's nomination to challenge Wolf, and state House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, is expected to announce his candidacy soon.

Wolf continues to tussle with historically large GOP majorities in the Legislature on taxes, spending, abortion and gun rights, and state government is facing perhaps the worst deficit since the recession.

Still, Wolf's comeback is being noticed. Whispers of "one-term Tom" are gone, and Republican political consultants now privately predict that Wolf will be tough to beat, even if he hasn't achieved his top priorities in office. Wolf even seems unperturbed about the prospect of negotiating politically charged legislation with Turzai, who wants to defeat him.

"We have a democracy, I'm going to have somebody running against me and I think I have a good working relationship with the speaker," Wolf told KDKA-AM radio Tuesday.

Coming into office, Wolf had sought a multibillion-dollar tax increase to resolve a stubborn deficit that has damaged Pennsylvania's credit rating and to funnel more money to public schools to narrow stark funding disparities between wealthier and poorer school districts.

A historically long budget stalemate ensued, with Turzai-led House Republicans resisting every dime of a tax increase.

At the height of the stalemate last spring, Wolf's approval rating sank below that of his three predecessors -- Democrat Ed Rendell and Republicans Tom Ridge and Tom Corbett -- at the same point in their first terms, according to polling by Franklin and Marshall College.

Just 31 percent of people polled saw Wolf as doing a good or excellent job, down from about 40 percent after he took office in 2015.

The soft-spoken Wolf quickly turned to a new message of can-do bipartisanship.

Wolf's campaign manager, Jeff Sheridan, declined to discuss the reasons behind the strategy, but it was clear to everyone in the Capitol: Nothing was getting done. Lawmakers ultimately approved a roughly $600 million tax package last summer that nevertheless left the post-Recession deficit and school funding disparities as bad as they had been, if not worse.

On other issues, Wolf found a measure of harmony with Republican lawmakers, such as legalizing medical marijuana and allowing private-sector wine sales, and he hit the road on a statewide tour to discuss strategies for attacking Pennsylvania's heroin and prescription drug addiction epidemic.

"I think they realized he wasn't doing well, being in the ring all the time," said Christopher Nicholas, a Harrisburg-based Republican campaign consultant. "So they essentially took him out of the ring. They said, 'Go and do some nice photo-ops.'"

In February, Wolf delivered his third budget proposal, stressing austerity. For the first time, he did not propose an increase in the sales or income tax rates, offering instead a $1 billion tax package that he promoted as shutting corporate tax loopholes.

The overall effect muted Republican criticism and, some say, cleverly forced them to confront the deficit.

Now, Wolf's performance rating is back up to 41 percent, about where Rendell's was at the same point in his first term before he eventually coasted to re-election, according to Franklin and Marshall College's polling from early May.

The rebound mirrors what political consultants see in their own surveys and it puts Wolf well above Corbett, who was dogged by "one-term Tom" whispers that, ultimately, were realized when he lost to Wolf in 2014.

Whether Wolf can maintain voters' favor is an open question. But he'll still have to answer for his tax-hiking strategy.

"Whoever the Republican nominee is," Nicholas said, "they'll try to make Tom Wolf eat that big tax hike sandwich again."

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