Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Political Look-Forward

I'm in a bit of a secular political mood this morning, so here's more grist for the mill.

After a quiet '05, the furious midterm election cycle kicks into gear with the New Year. All of the Federal House of Representatives, a third of the Senate and the majority of US governorships are at stake in the November elections, which will be both a referendum on the performance of the Bush administration two years before it ships out and a tone-setter for the presidential election in 2008.

Here in Pennsylvania, the already-contentious governor's race gets jolted again today with the entrance of the "pro-life" (read: anti-abortion) candidate on the Republican side, the former football player and television commentator Lynn Swann. Swann and former Lieutenant Governor William Scranton III will be duking it out for the GOP's nod to challenge Democratic incumbent Ed Rendell in November.

Listening to and reading this morning's political commentary, it all seems to scream one word: Bloodbath. In this God-and-Guns commonwealth, the Republican primary will be a divisive one as Scranton is more a progressive on social issues than most rural Pennsylvania Democrats, who are unique in the context of the national party for being anti-abortion and against gun control. Scranton, who served as then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh's #2, was seen as unbeatable in the 1986 governor's race, until a negative TV spot -- known for eternity as the "Guru" ad -- from the campaign of Democrat Bob Casey (Sr.) which ran the weekend before the election sank the Scranton campaign and landed Casey in the governor's chair.

And then, of course, the Keystone State will have to withstand the Armageddon Senate Race between Casey's son and heir, Bob Jr., the current state treasurer, and Rick "Man on Dog" Santorum, a five-star general in the Culture War and senior prelate of the Republican Catholic church. Early projections opine that the senate race alone will plow through $100 million in donations, most of which will be devoted to buying up TV time in the state's multiple media markets.

Most of the press coverage keeps returning to one line of context which fascinates those who keep an eye on politics here: the unique pendulum dynamic known as the "Eight-Year Curse." Since the state constitution was revised to allow two consecutive terms to governors in 1972, the major parties have held onto the office for eight years at a time, and no incumbent seeking re-election has ever lost -- Casey the Elder's 1990 re-election came with a margin of victory in excess of a million votes.

In contrast to prior elections, usually dominated by the volatile questions of abortion, property taxes or gun safety, the electoral landscape these days has at its fore the controversial pay raise passed by Pennsylvania's General Assembly (the state legislature) in the dead of night in early July. While it was since revoked due to an unprecedented popular outcry, grass-roots groups have already succeeded in ousting one state supreme court justice at the ballot box last November and seek to exact revenge across the electoral board, both in the primaries and at the general election. The combination of voter fury at the raise, particularly in the central and western pockets of the state, and Rendell's attention to his hometown of Philadelphia and its suburban ring have combined to create a widespread perception of the governor's vulnerability as he enters his re-election fight. But if there's one thing veteran politics-watchers know about Ed Rendell, it's not to count him out.

Should make for a very interesting campaign year. Stay tuned throughout for continuing coverage.

SVILUPPO (1.45pm):Thanks to a reader in Western PA for these notes:
"1. Pennsylvania's constitution was changed to permit two consecutive terms for governors in 1968, not 1972.

"2. The 'eight year cycle' predates that change and goes back to the emergence of the state's Democratic party as a serious political force after World War II. Democrat George Leader was elected in 1954 and control of the governor's office has switched every eight years since. The first two post-war governors were Republicans, so the cycle is often said to date back an additional eight years."
Seems my Pennsylvania Politics seminar in college was a bit more fuzzy than I thought.... Oh well.