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Several staffers have left Republican Jake Corman’s campaign for Pa. governor

The departures show the gap between the campaign’s expectations that Corman would quickly emerge as a front-runner and the reality of a crowded, unsettled race.

Pennsylvania State Senate leader Jake Corman in Philadelphia earlier this month.
Pennsylvania State Senate leader Jake Corman in Philadelphia earlier this month.Read moreHEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer

When Jake Corman launched his campaign for governor of Pennsylvania in November, more than a half-dozen Republican candidates were already in the race and several more were eyeing it. But Corman and his aides believed he could effectively clear the primary field — something the state Senate leader reportedly said himself.

That didn’t happen.

Not only did more candidates jump in, but things haven’t gone smoothly for Corman. At least five staffers and advisers — his campaign manager, political director, finance director, a fund-raiser, and scheduler — have left, according to several sources familiar with the matter.

No single reason appears to have driven the personnel moves, said these sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity to offer candid assessments of a high-profile political figure. And some turnover is to be expected. But taken together, they show the big gap between the campaign’s expectations that Corman — who has served more than two decades as a lawmaker — would quickly emerge as a front-runner and the reality of a crowded, unsettled race.

The personnel moves come as the primary enters a new phase. More than a dozen candidates are seeking the nomination, and the state GOP declined to endorse a candidate at its winter meeting.

» READ MORE: Jake Corman on his run for Pa. governor, Trump’s influence on the primary, and the 2020 election

Corman is among just a handful of candidates who have enough campaign cash for TV ads. Former Delaware County Councilman Dave White and former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain are also on the air.

They’re all chasing former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta and State Sen. Doug Mastriano, both staunch allies of former President Donald Trump. Barletta and Mastriano entered the race as the best-known candidates and are the only ones who have gained double-digit support in polls of Republican voters. But GOP insiders expect lower-tier candidates to stay in the race.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro is the only established Democrat running.

Rivals aren’t counting Corman out. Most voters are only now getting their first look at the Centre County Republican, who went on TV last week with an ad featuring a 1990s hair-band rocker. “I defeated Tom Wolf’s record-breaking tax increases,” Corman says in the spot. “I fought him in court, so we could audit the 2020 election. And I ended his mask mandates for kids in school.”

He’s also taking aim at Larry Krasner, with a long-shot campaign to impeach the Philadelphia district attorney.

Corman still has top-notch campaign talent, including senior adviser Mark Harris, a longtime top strategist on Sen. Pat Toomey’s successful campaigns. His ad-maker, Will Ritter, helped elect Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin last year. And Corman brought on former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway last month.

The Corman campaign didn’t dispute the staff departures. “It’s that time of year when those struggling to raise money start whisper campaigns about staffing,” Corman spokesperson Dave La Torre said in a statement. “We understand they’re desperate. When Jake has out-raised the next five campaigns combined, you just have to chuckle.”

» READ MORE: Lou Barletta is the best-known GOP candidate for Pa. governor. Is that enough?

As part of the campaign shake-up, Corman is said to have embraced a new strategy focused on performing well in Western Pennsylvania. Barletta represented parts of Northeastern Pennsylvania in Congress, Mastriano lives in rural Franklin County, in south-central Pennsylvania, and White and McSwain are from the Philadelphia suburbs.

The Corman campaign, initially based in Harrisburg, has moved its headquarters to Pittsburgh. That’s also where Harris’ consulting firm, ColdSpark, is based. The firm is also advising Republican David McCormick’s U.S. Senate campaign.

Around the time of the pivot to Pittsburgh, campaign manager Katy Covey Morris, who was based in Washington, decided to leave. Morris was Corman’s second campaign manager; the previous one, Mike Rader, is now a senior adviser. The new campaign manager, Ryan Reynolds, a ColdSpark vice president, took the helm this month. He’s worked on state and federal races across the country.

Shortly after Morris left, the campaign ousted Jenise Harris, a veteran fund-raiser who served as finance director for GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner in 2018. Jenise Harris’ departure came weeks after finance director Catherine Onnen left. And Kelly Koppenhaver, the campaign scheduler, returned to her old job in the state Senate. Political director Cody Bright, a township supervisor in Chester County, left earlier this month — and is now working for Mehmet Oz’s U.S. Senate campaign. The former aides either declined to comment or couldn’t be reached.

When closely watched financial reports were made public at the end of January, Corman’s campaign reported raising $3 million through his gubernatorial campaign and other political groups — more than any other candidate.

Even so, at least some inside Corman’s campaign had expected that his experience and status as Senate president pro tempore would have helped bring in more, one of the sources said. “Everyone thought, ‘This guy’s for real,’” the person said, describing the prevailing sentiment inside the campaign at its outset.

Campaign officials were said to believe they could raise $5 million by the end of 2021, according to a person familiar with the matter.

» READ MORE: The first fund-raising reports in the Pa. governor’s race show it’s up for grabs

GOP insiders say that, in an election with multiple serious contenders, many donors have been waiting for the race to come into clearer view before making commitments — with one big exception. Late last month, Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs — a free-market group whose political action committee had $20 million — endorsed McSwain.

That development in particular pushed Corman to adjust his strategy, an adviser said, because it meant two well-funded candidates — McSwain and White, who lent his campaign $3 million — would have strong advantages in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Commonwealth Partners and McSwain have reserved a total of $7 million in airtime through the May 17 primary.

If Corman’s team was disappointed by its fund-raising, he hasn’t appeared to generate a groundswell of grassroots support, either.

Party activists held a series of meetings last month, organized by region, to pepper the candidates with questions and hold straw-poll votes. White, of Delaware County, won the most votes in the straw polls — including in the central caucus vote on Corman’s home turf. White, McSwain, Barletta, State Sen. Scott Martin (R., Lancaster), and political consultant Charlie Gerow all finished ahead of Corman. (Martin and Gerow also live in the region.) Corman later skipped similar events in the northwest and southwest.

His campaign suggested the results weren’t meaningful, saying other candidates were “chasing headlines to tout straw polls.”

A meeting of 100 or so party activists won’t determine the outcome of the race. And White was widely seen as devoting more energy to the caucus process — which ultimately culminated in the state party’s decision not to endorse a candidate.

But some of the sources said Corman’s poor showing suggested he may have been overly confident at the outset.

Corman, asked by The Inquirer earlier this month about his reported October remarks to congressional Republicans that he could clear the field, said he didn’t remember if he said that. “I probably thought there was an opportunity to sort of coalesce around someone,” he said. “So, if I said that, it didn’t happen.”

Correction: The original version of this story misspelled Will Ritter’s last name.