Tom Wolf’s Dilemma: Back Stack or Sack Stack?

Guest Post by DDHQ Volunteer Jeff Ditzler

One of the few bright spots of the 2014 elections for Democrats was the election of Tom Wolf as governor of Pennsylvania, defeating incumbent Tom Corbett even as the Democrats lost ground in the state General Assembly.  You’d think the governor of a swing state trending away from his party (Wolf is the only Democratic governor of a state that voted for President Trump up for re-election in 2018) with decent but not overwhelmingly positive approval numbers wouldn’t want to rock the boat the year before re-election.  However, Wolf has ordered an investigation of his lieutenant governor, Michael Stack, for mistreatment of state troopers assigned to his security detail and other employees, an investigation that spread to his and his wife’s treatment of other staff members and charges he made to state expense accounts.

Stack was not Wolf’s choice as his lieutenant governor.  In Pennsylvania, candidates for governor and lieutenant governor run in separate primaries, but as a ticket in the general election.  The state party committees and gubernatorial candidates can and do endorse candidates for lieutenant governor, but the primary voters have the final say.   (Neither Wolf nor the committee made an endorsement in 2014.)  It’s possible, then, that Stack could lose the support of Wolf and the Democratic State Committee, run anyway, win the primary, and run on the same ticket as Wolf (who is unlikely to face significant primary opposition) in the general election.

Wolf’s motivations for investigating Stack now become clear: he either wants to replace Stack and wants to give the party time to find and unite behind a replacement, or he wants the scandal to blow over before the election heats up.  So far, only one candidate to challenge Stack has emerged: Aryanna Berringer, a party activist from Westmoreland County, outside Pittsburgh.  Berringer has some strengths- she founded a nonprofit and served in Iraq, and the Democrats are looking for female candidates this cycle- but her only political experience is running for Congress as a sacrificial lamb in a heavily Republican district on the other side of the state.  If Wolf and the party leadership want to replace Stack, they will most likely seek a bigger name.

When party insiders endorse a candidate for lieutenant governor, they usually seek to balance their candidate for governor.  For Governor Wolf, a technocratic, socially liberal businessman from heavily Republican York County, this would mean an experienced politician from a traditional Democratic stronghold with credibility among the blue-collar voters who swung Pennsylvania into Donald Trump’s column last year.  Ironically, were it not for his recent difficulties, Stack himself, a former state senator from predominantly white, blue-collar Northeast Philadelphia, would fit the bill nicely.  The first step to getting a candidate is getting him or her to agree to run, which could expose the party to a repeat of the beginning of the 2016 U.S. Senate race.  The first Democrat to announce a challenge to U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey was former Admiral and U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, who had almost defeated Toomey in 2010 but was not popular with the state Democratic leadership.  The party leadership went publically looking for another candidate and was turned down by several people before recruiting Katie McGinty.  Presumably, it would be even more difficult to recruit a candidate against an incumbent.

In a recent piece on Lancaster Online (registration required), two names were mentioned: Rich Fitzgerald, the executive of Allegheny County (Pittsburgh and its immediate suburbs) and Katie McGinty.  Fitzgerald, according to the article, is not interested.  McGinty is an attractive candidate: she grew up as one of ten children of a police officer in Philadelphia, served as Governor Wolf’s chief of staff, and went from a poor fourth-place showing in the 2014 gubernatorial primary to coming within a percentage point and a half of defeating an incumbent U.S. Senator in 2016.  However, she might not be willing to leave the venture capital firm she just joined, and her status as a party loyalist might be a double-edged sword when voters are in an anti-establishment mood.

Since Governor Wolf has had friction with the Republican-dominated General Assembly in his first term, he might choose a legislator to replace Stack.  Wolf could choose a senator or representative from a traditionally Democratic area that has drifted away from the party, such as Sen. John Blake of Lackawanna County, Sen. John Yudichak of Luzerne County, Sen. Jim Brewster of Allegheny County, Rep. Pam Snyder of Greene County, or Rep. Mike Hanna of Clinton County.  However, recruiting a Democratic officeholder from a Republican-trending area gives the Republicans an opportunity to expand their already large majorities by capturing the open seat.  One candidate who could thread the needle is Rep. Scott Conklin of Centre County.  Conklin, the party’s 2010 nominee for lieutenant governor, graduated from a vocational-technical school and represents an area with a significant rural presence- but also Penn State University, which makes the district likely to stay in Democratic hands.

The Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008, followed by the Republican wave of 2010 and a GOP-friendly redistricting, gave the Democrats a bumper crop of former U.S. House members who might be looking for a way to re-enter state politics.  Among them, the three strongest candidates are probably Kathy Dahlkemper, currently serving as Erie County Executive; Mark Critz, who inherited Jack Murtha’s old seat and came in second to Stack in the 2014 lieutenant gubernatorial primary; and Patrick Murphy, an Iraq veteran who served as Undersecretary of the Army for the last year of the Obama administration.  Former congressmen Chris Carney of Susquehanna County and Tim Holden of Schuylkill County are also possibilities, but might be too moderate for the party’s liberal base.

Two other candidates, both from the Pittsburgh area, also bear mentioning.  Chelsa Wagner is the Allegheny County Controller and a former state representative, Her father, Jack, is a former Auditor General and a leader in the blue-collar wing of the state Democratic Party, and she’s young (thirty-nine) by political standards.  John Fetterman gained national attention as an AmeriCorps volunteer who stayed in Braddock, an economically struggling town outside Pittsburgh, as its mayor, and parlayed it into twenty percent of the vote statewide in last year’s U.S. Senate primary.  He’d have strong grassroots support if he ran, but his style might not be well suited to run as the second fiddle to the low-key Governor Wolf.

As it stands now, Tom Wolf probably has better-than-even odds of winning re-election, particularly if a backlash builds against the Trump administration.  However, the situation with Lt. Governor Stack, unless it blows over or Stack steps aside, could cause a divisive primary and become a headache for the Democrats in the general election as they seek to regain their momentum in a formerly blue state