(WOMENSENEWS)–Rep. Allyson Schwartz, a five-term congresswoman, seemed like a good bet to win the Democratic nomination and go on from there to become Pennsylvania’s first female governor.
Sixty-five-year-old Schwartz had one of the strongest records of health care advocacy in Congress. As a state senator, she championed legislation that gave women direct access to obstetricians-gynecologists. As a congresswoman, she spearheaded efforts to solve the looming shortage of physicians and nurses.
In January she started off the campaign as the frontrunner and was widely considered to be the strongest candidate in the crowded primary. Women’s groups, other Democrats and members of Congress all believed that Schwartz, who had a 24-year-career in government, would triumph over two opponents who had shorter resumes in government and an unknown businessman.
But on May 21 she was a distant second with 18 percent of the votes in the primary to oppose Republican Gov. Tom Corbett whose low approval ratings make him the most politically vulnerable governor in the nation. She lost to first-time candidate Tom Wolf– the businessman–who received 58 percent of the vote and carried all 67 counties.
Both parties have made electing female governors a top priority in the November midterm elections, yet Schwartz’s loss signals what could be a major problem for female candidates: heavier spending on campaign ads in the aftermath of the 2010 Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that removed limits on campaign financing.
“Finances are a tremendous hurdle for female candidates because they cannot fund their own campaigns and often lack contacts in the business community that can jump start their campaigns to introduce the candidates to millions of voters across the states,” said Kelly Dittmar, a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., in a phone interview.
Governor Bids Difficult for Women
Running for governor is exceptionally difficult even for well-qualified female candidates such as Schwartz, Dittmar said. “Voters are more comfortable with women as legislators than governors who are seen as chief executives of states.”
In the past, only candidates in hotly contested national races mounted expensive media campaigns. But now TV ads are becoming the norm in gubernatorial races. Four candidates spent $30.6 million in Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party primary, state election records indicate.
About $2.6 billion will be spent on TV spots in 2014 by federal and gubernatorial candidates, predicts Moody’s, the financial credit rating agency. That figure rivals the record $2.9 billion spent in 2012, a general election year, when 31 percent of spending was done by presidential campaigns. Moody’s expects ad spending in the 2016 election to break records.
In January, Wolf poured $10 million of his own money into TV ads, which dominated the airways through Election Day. He also raised $4 million from supporters.
Schwartz, a favorite of national women’s groups including EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood, raised $7.5 million overall. In April, when she began trying to reach the 13 million voters in the state’s 10 media markets, she was the last put TV ads on the air.
Although she had served in the state legislature for 14 years and had been a member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Schwartz didn’t have enough statewide recognition to counter Wolf’s ad spending. She was largely unknown outside her 13th congressional district, which included blue-collar neighborhoods of Philadelphia and its wealthy suburbs.
‘Early Money Spent Wisely’
“One of the guiding principles of gubernatorial campaigns is that early money spent wisely helps a candidate prevail in the primary,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Penn. “Initially Wolf was the least well-known candidate, but after the first three weeks of the campaign when his ads started appearing he rocketed to the top with a double digit lead over the other three candidates, which he maintained through Election Day.”
Female representation in the United States is relatively low in Congress and lower still among governors.
Women currently hold 18 percent of the 535 seats in the 113th Congress finds the Center for American Women and Politics, which conducts research and outreach programs to address women’s under-representation in politics and government. But only 10 percent, or five women, are governors of the 50 states.
Designed by Saul Shorr, a member of President Obama’s media team in the general election of 2008, Wolf’s ads projected a “regular guy” image that had enabled President Ronald Reagan, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown and other male contenders to convince voters that they understood their needs and would solve the problems of ordinary Americans.
The 65-year-old Wolf was pictured honking and waving while driving a beat up 2006 Jeep Wrangler on neighborhood streets while his mother, wife of 39 years, and two grown daughters extolled his virtues: a doctorate in political science from MIT, serving in India as a Peace Corps volunteer and rebuilding the family’s kitchen cabinet business to become the largest in the nation.
During the first quarter of 2014, Schwartz, State Treasurer Rob McCord and former State Secretary of Environmental Resources Katie McGinty scrambled to raise funds to get their messages across to the state’s 13 million voters in 10 media markets.
Highlighting Her Health Record
Titled “Got It Done,” Schwartz’ first ad highlighted her efforts as a state senator to create the Pennsylvania Children’s Health Insurance Program, which became the model for a similar program enacted by Congress in 1997. The national program now serves 8 million low-income children.
Schwartz’s second ad included her pledge to “break through the old boy’s club in Harrisburg, the capital, and get things done for working families.” Pennsylvania ranks 38th among the states for the proportion of women in the state legislature with 17.8 percent, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. In 2013, it ranked 48 in job creation, notes the federal Department of Labor.
Dittmar said Schwartz’s legislative accomplishments didn’t have as much impact as it might have had in other years. “Only 14 percent of Americans have a favorable impression of Congress, so it is not surprising that voters in Pennsylvania cast ballots for Wolf, a political outsider,” she said.
“The crowded primary posed a challenge for Schwartz because all four candidates supported taxing natural gas drilling and tapping the state’s vast shale reservoirs, which Corbett opposed,” said Madonna of Franklin and Marshall College who has been following Pennsylvania politics for more than three decades. “All four wanted to boost funding for education, supported gay marriage and expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.”
Schwartz tried to break out of the pack by highlighting the importance of equal pay. She urged Wolf to release a gender audit of the pay policies of the Wolf Organization to determine if his family-owned business was indeed paying equal wages as Wolf had claimed.
Wolf rejected the request as “ridiculous” and launched a series of ads showing employees touting his concern for their wellbeing.
Wolf’s primary advantage–being a self-funding millionaire candidate in the primary–may disappear in the general election. Corbett has $6.3 million in cash on hand compared to $1.6 million for Wolf, state campaign records indicate.
Corbett alienated many women in 2012 when he said that “women opposed to mandated ultrasounds before abortions could just close their eyes.” Although the bill died in the legislature, Democrats across the country cited Corbett’s remark as an example of the GOP’s “war on women.”
Corbett hopes that female voters will look at him favorably because 7 of the 25 members of his cabinet are women. Corbett has supported legislation that has caused several free-standing abortion clinics to close in Pennsylvania. Wolf has not elaborated on what constitutes his “pro-choice position.”
Sharon Johnson is a New York free-lance writer.
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