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Pa. Republicans are taking aim at Tom Wolf, not Biden, as they look to win the 2022 governor’s race

Republicans hoping to replace Wolf are making the lame-duck governor and his handling of the coronavirus a central issue in the very early days of the 2022 contest.

Gov. Tom Wolf in West Philadelphia last month.
Gov. Tom Wolf in West Philadelphia last month.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

When Pennsylvania Republicans celebrated the passage of two ballot questions this week reining in the emergency powers held by the governor’s office, they saw more than just a rebuke to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. They saw a path to winning the office themselves next year.

“Pennsylvanians voted to reject ... Wolf’s overreach of executive powers after his failed COVID response — a clear sign of accountability coming in 2022,” Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said on Twitter.

Republicans hoping to replace Wolf are making the lame-duck governor and his handling of the coronavirus a central issue in the very early days of the 2022 contest.

Much of former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta’s campaign launch video this week focused on pandemic restrictions Wolf imposed last year. He blamed Wolf for squeezing businesses, causing high unemployment, keeping schools closed too long, and for his administration’s order directing nursing homes to readmit coronavirus patients.

“Tom Wolf has blood on his hands,” Barletta said in the video. About half of the state’s coronavirus deaths occurred in nursing homes through March 7, though it’s unclear if Wolf’s decision caused an outbreak or increase.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania voters backed curtailing Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency powers in a win for Republican lawmakers

Former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, another likely gubernatorial candidate, leads his political committee’s website by blasting Wolf and declaring that “our freedoms have been violated by repeated, unilateral executive actions that shut down our economy.”

And State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), who met with former President Donald Trump at Trump Tower this week and is likely to run for governor, says he battled Wolf last year in Harrisburg while other 2022 hopefuls were “missing in action.”

”I’m speaking as somebody who’s been on the front this past year, speaking out, and fighting,” Mastriano said in a radio interview this week. None of the other potential candidates “lifted a finger to help me last year.”

Republicans have long used Wolf’s pandemic response as a rallying cry. That’s resonated in deeply conservative areas of the state where many chafed against government restrictions, face masks, and scientific and medical experts. Even during the 2020 campaign, Republicans tapped into a deep fury at Wolf in parts of the state, deriding the governor as a “tyrant” as they successfully campaigned to hold the state legislature.

But with President Joe Biden enjoying strong public approval ratings early in his tenure and Wolf’s slipping as his eight years in office near a close, Republicans are making the governor an even more prominent target — and largely ignoring Democrats’ big-spending ambitions in Washington.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania Republicans go big on culture wars while Biden pushes big spending

Wolf has “clearly over the last year taken hits for his work in pandemic response,” said Chris Borick, a pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “And part of that is just the nature of crisis management: You’re making tough decisions and limiting freedoms for lots of people in the state, economically and personally, and it’s taken a toll and Republicans recognize that.”

Wolf, who is term-limited, got middling ratings on handling the pandemic in a March Muhlenberg survey: 40% approved and 41% disapproved. By contrast, 54% approved of Biden’s work on the issue and 28% disapproved.

It’s a stark contrast from the Obama years, when the GOP rallied voters by promising to stand up to the president. And it’s a turnabout from 2020, when Trump’s own campaign pollster said he was brought down by his erratic handling of the pandemic, including downplaying the threat, undercutting medical advice, and leaving most of the tricky decisions around economic shutdowns to governors. Pennsylvania’s GOP hopefuls supported Trump amid the virus’ spread.

Wolf, like many governors, earned high marks early in the pandemic, which then sank as the crisis dragged on, people tired of restrictions or found them overly onerous, and as the virus response became more intensely partisan.

Among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., Pennsylvania ranks well in cases per capita (12th fewest), though it has the 11th-most deaths per person. It’s now one of the leading states in vaccine distribution after a slow start.

Matt Brouillette, a Republican activist who is CEO of the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, said the approval of the ballot referendums showed the public isn’t happy with Wolf’s “go-it-alone approach.”

He noted that Republicans ran on a similar message during last year’s legislative elections, when the GOP thwarted Democrats’ efforts to take control of the state House.

“We saw in 2020 where voters rejected Donald Trump at the national level, but they repudiated the Democrat messaging down ballot,” Brouillette said.And I think that includes how Tom Wolf handled things.”

In pushing to limit the governor’s emergency powers, the conservative Commonwealth Foundation ran digital ads showing Wolf in a crown.

Democrats acknowledge that anger at Wolf is a powerful force on the right, but some say that with people getting vaccinated, businesses reopening, and life moving toward normal, the anti-lockdown message could lose potency by November 2022.

“It’s just sort of out of touch with where the country and the public at large really are looking at COVID now,” said J.J. Abbott, a Democratic operative and former Wolf spokesperson. “I just don’t think last year’s pandemic politics are going to be all that relevant to voters in 2022.”

Pointing to the early popularity of Biden’s agenda, Abbott said people won’t want to relitigate decisions made during a once-in-a-generation pandemic. “People are looking for a vision for what’s next,” he said.

Republicans are trying to give the issue legs by tying Wolf’s actions to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, widely seen as the early Democratic front-runner for governor.

”It’s been Josh Shapiro who has been defending Tom Wolf in the courts for his consistent unilateral and unlimited power grabs,” Brouillete said. “And so Josh Shapiro owns a bunch of Tom Wolf’s ability to act without consulting the legislature.”

It remains to be seen whether that message will resonate. Shapiro won reelection last year with the most votes of anyone on the ballot — including Biden.

Borick said there’s a long history of outgoing governors dragging down their party as their tenures end. Even as the pandemic recedes, Wolf’s actions could still fit the broader “change” narrative that parties out of power often ride to victory.

Pennsylvania Republicans are banking on it.