With Election Day less than eight weeks away, Republican governor Tom Corbett has been ramping up his attack ads on challenger Tom Wolf in an effort to cut into the Democrat's double-digit lead.
Corbett has been hitting the York County businessman with allegations that Wolf's cabinet-making company takes advantage of tax loopholes, as well as claims that he backs President Obama's position on issues like gun control and environmental regulations on the coal industry.
Wolf's campaign has denounced the accusations; spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan calls the negative tack an act of "desperation" that relies on "discredited lies."
"Tom Wolf is a successful businessman from York County who supports the Second Amendment," Sheridan counters. "Tom knows that coal is a vital part of Pennsylvania's energy portfolio."
But in any case, the ads seem to have made little dent in the polls. A recent Franklin & Marshall College poll has Corbett trailing Wolf 49 percent to 24 percent, while a Robert Morris University poll last week had Corbett down 55.5 percent to 24.7 percent. Another poll from the conservative Harper Polling showed Corbett trailing Wolf by 11 points, 52 percent to 41 percent.
"I don't think it's a bad strategy for Corbett to tie Wolf to Obama, who is very unpopular," says professor Phillip Harold, the RMU pollster. "But I'm not sure how effective it can be because the polling data tells us that this race is not about national issues: It's a referendum on the incumbent. ... What we heard were our poll respondents volunteering information about what they didn't like about Tom Corbett."
Pollster G. Terry Madonna, who directs Franklin & Marshall's polling efforts, says Corbett seems to still be hunting around for a "game-changer."
"If Corbett were able to come back and win, it would be historic," says Madonna. "[N]o candidate down 20 points in June has ever come back and won. ... One advantage Tom Corbett has is money and he is the incumbent. But ... if something is going to happen for him, he needs it to happen soon."
So far, however, Corbett has attacked Wolf on issues where his own record has been subject to criticism. In early August, Corbett criticized the Democrat for not releasing an audit about "how women were treated at Wolf's company." The charge echoed claims made in the Democratic primary, when an ally of a Wolf rival, Philadelphia congresswoman Allyson Schwartz, questioned how many top managers in Wolf's company were women.
However, Corbett's own track record on women's issues has been rocky. While defending a proposed bill requiring that women get a mandatory ultrasound before an abortion, Corbett said "I'm not making anybody watch ... you just have to close your eyes." Last week, meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that during the time Corbett served as state Attorney General, a female employee complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission about discrimination and an office culture in which senior officials shared "racy pictures and [made] derogatory comments against women."
In another ad, Corbett accuses Wolf's company of taking advantage of the so-called "Delaware loophole." The loophole allows a company to avoid Pennsylvania's higher taxes by incorporating in Delaware, where rates are lower. Wolf's campaign has repeatedly indicated that, while the firm was incorporated in Delaware after Wolf sold it in 2006, it pays Pennsylvania taxes. Wolf has vowed to close the loophole, and as yet, Corbett's campaign has yet to prove that the company — which Wolf reacquired in 2009 — has taken advantage of the tax disparity.
"You can't just make the charge," says Madonna. "You have to provide some evidence and that's where they've fallen short"
Liberal critics note that Corbett hasn't exactly been zealous about curtailing corporate tax avoidance. While Corbett signed off on a law to close the loophole in 2015, it included a sales-tax exemption for aircraft parts and maintenance, as well as other corporate tax breaks.
Sharon Ward, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, calls the 2011 law "a fig leaf."
"It makes me chuckle," she says. "For most of his administration, Tom Corbett has denied there was such a thing [as the loophole]. Now he's trying to use it in his ads against Wolf."