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Comfortably ahead, Pa. Gov. Wolf takes low-risk approach in reelection bid

Gov. Wolf's strategy includes millions in TV ads, campaigning in friendly Democratic territory and avoiding engaging Scott Wagner directly.

Gov. Wolf on Friday in Philadelphia, where he showed support for Marriott workers hoping to unionize. Wolf is using a low-risk strategy as he seeks reelection in November.
Gov. Wolf on Friday in Philadelphia, where he showed support for Marriott workers hoping to unionize. Wolf is using a low-risk strategy as he seeks reelection in November.Read moreERIN BLEWETT / Staff Photographer

ROSS TOWNSHIP, Pa. — In a booming voice, the Democrat stood before a roomful of devoted supporters here and addressed the bizarre episode last week that made national news in the Pennsylvania governor's race: "Has anyone seen an angry old white guy in golf spikes in the parking lot?"

The line — a reference to Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner's videotaped roadside remarks Friday that he would "stomp" on Gov. Wolf's face with "golf spikes" — drew raucous applause and laughter at a Democratic campaign office here in suburban Pittsburgh on Saturday morning, where canvassers had gathered before fanning out to knock on doors.

But it was Wolf's running mate, lieutenant governor candidate John Fetterman, who was taking Wagner head-on, declaring "the wheels" had come off the Republican's campaign.

As for Wolf? The governor reminded supporters of his investments in education and expansion of Medicaid, and declared that "we need to take this democracy back" on Election Day. There was no mention of Wagner, no explicit mention of the man who has energized Democrats throughout the country: President Trump.

The moment showed Wolf's even-keeled demeanor, which many of his supporters admire as a leader's temperament, as well as a respite from the chaos of the Trump era.

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Yet it also underscored the governor's disciplined and low-risk strategy as he seeks a second four-year term in Harrisburg, sticking to his stump speech before core supporters as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Wolf has blanketed the airwaves with more than $10 million in television ads that portray him as an honest and "different" kind of politician, mostly campaigned in friendly Democratic territory in areas like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and avoided engaging Wagner directly.

That it took Wagner's widely condemned (and since retracted) remarks to wake the public up to the campaign for governor in the fifth most populous state in the country showed just how uneventful the race has been.

There couldn't be a sharper contrast, both in style and substance, between the candidates. Wolf, 69, is a former Peace Corps volunteer who got a Ph.D. in political science at MIT and talks about seeking compromise; Wagner, 63, a former state senator, didn't graduate from college, founded a waste-hauling business, and styles himself as a Trump-like candidate who would "drain the swamp" in Harrisburg. Probably the only similarity: Both live in York County.

Wolf has vetoed proposals supported by Wagner and other Republicans to restrict abortion rights, and Wagner opposed the governor's proposal to raise the income and sales taxes, which was part of a property-tax reduction plan, as well as Wolf's proposed severance tax on natural gas drilling.

But voters could be forgiven if they don't know that. L'affaire Golf Spike — along with Alex Trebek's widely panned performance as debate moderator — was one of the few times all year the race has captured significant attention from the news media and the broader public.

Republicans and newspaper editorials across the state have ripped Wolf for refusing to participate in more debates. Wagner has been criticized for refusing to release his tax returns.

"The governor's race is a non-factor," said Neil Oxman, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist who isn't involved in the campaign. "Voters can absorb only so much. What they are absorbing so much from Washington is so overwhelming. Every single day there's something new out of Washington."

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The first few years of Wolf's tenure were characterized by never-ending budget brawls with the Republican-controlled legislature. But with no major controversy looming, the governor has made the race a referendum on likability, Oxman said.

Wolf has reprised TV ads from his successful 2014 campaign, showing him driving his Jeep to the Capitol and highlighting his ban on gifts from lobbyists.

In markets outside Philadelphia — which is expensive and where Wolf was already popular — the campaign started airing ads early this year about his efforts to help seniors stay in their homes and increasing funding for education.

The strategy appears to be working: Half of the state's registered voters approve of Wolf's job performance, and 54 percent view him favorably, compared with just 33 percent who view him unfavorably, according to a poll released last month by Franklin & Marshall College. He holds a comfortable double-digit lead over Wagner in public polls, winning majorities of nearly every demographic.

For his part, Wagner started in a deep hole after investing millions in a competitive Republican primary. His combative, Trump-like approach alienated some key party power brokers, and he has struggled to stay on television. The Republican Governors Association, which helps elect GOP candidates, hasn't helped him.

He's also been handicapped by a treacherous national political environment for Republicans, as opposition to Trump fuels Democratic enthusiasm in areas like the Philadelphia suburbs. That energy and a solid economy are helping Wolf, the only Democratic governor running for reelection in a state Trump won in 2016.

In an interview, Wolf rejected the suggestion that he'd taken a conservative approach to his reelection campaign, saying he's working seven days a week juggling his day job as governor and campaigning.

"For the life of me I'm not quite clear how that's not working hard," he said at Democratic offices here in the Pittsburgh suburb known as North Hills, where lawn signs for U.S. Reps. Conor Lamb, a Democrat, and Keith Rothfus, a Republican, dot the streets in a competitive congressional race.

Wolf, wearing a gray suit jacket and a green sweater on a chilly fall Saturday, made his way from North Hills to Democratic Party events with predominantly black audiences in the postindustrial towns of Wilkinsburg and McKeesport.

Campaigning with Allegheny County Democratic leaders, Wolf reinforced his persona of a political outsider — "I've been in politics now for three years and eight months," he said (though he served as revenue secretary in the Rendell administration).

Describing a state that's now headed in the right direction under his leadership, Wolf hit key themes on increasing education spending, expanding access to health care, and fighting the opioid crisis.

"We've actually done all these things and we balanced the budget," he told a few dozen supporters at Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg, a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh. (Of the nine-month stalemate over Wolf's first budget, the governor said he had to send a message that "we're not going to do things the way we've been doing them.")

While Wolf used the rhetoric of incremental progress, other local Democratic candidates took direct aim at Trump. One even brought up the odd spectacle of Kanye West's tête-à-tête with the president at the White House, declaring that Republicans would have impeached President Barack Obama for doing the same.

That's not Wolf's style. And his supporters appreciate that.

"I think he's keeping our state from so many horrible things, it's hard to keep track," said Yael Schenker, a 45-year-old physician from Pittsburgh, who attended the canvass kickoff in North Hills. "We have so much political crap these days. We don't give as much credit to people who aren't fiery."

Wolf, asked if he enjoyed campaigning, pointed to the room where dozens of supporters had gathered. "I see good people like this who are fired up about our democracy. … I really find that exciting," he said. "That's what fires me up."