Pennsylvania Governor: Can Allyson Schwartz Make It to Harrisburg?

by Stuart Rothenberg April 11, 2013 · 9:46 AM EDT

Philadelphia Democratic Rep. Allyson Schwartz recently confirmed what everyone had already suspected: She is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in Pennsylvania.

The big question is whether someone from southeastern Pennsylvania can get nominated, let alone win the governorship. During the past 35 years, only one politician from the southeastern corner of the state, former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, has been nominated. He also won two general elections.

To wit:

  • The current governor, Republican Tom Corbett, was born in Philadelphia but lived in western Pennsylvania for years and remains identified with that part of the state. Before being elected state attorney general, Corbett was the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania.
  • Corbett was elected governor in 2010 when he defeated Democrat Dan Onorato, the former chief executive of Allegheny County (metropolitan Pittsburgh).
  • Rendell won the governorship in 2002 and 2006. Both of his GOP opponents were identified with greater Pittsburgh — former Pittsburgh Steelers star Lynn Swann in 2006 and former state Attorney General Mike Fisher in 2002.
  • Republican Tom Ridge of Erie, in the northwestern corner of the state, defeated two western Pennsylvania Democrats, besting former Allegheny County state legislator Ivan Itkin in 1998 and Johnstown-area Democrat Mark Singel in 1994.
  • Scranton-area Democrat Bob Casey Sr. was elected governor in 1990 and 1986. He defeated Allegheny County Republican Barbara Hafer in ’90 and northeastern Pennsylvania’s Bill Scranton III in ’86.
  • In 1978 and 1982, western Pennsylvania Republican Dick Thornburgh was elected governor. He defeated Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty in 1978 and central Pennsylvania (Williamsport) Democratic Rep. Allen Ertel four years later.

Except for Rendell, that’s a long string of nominees from both parties from outside Philadelphia.

In Senate races, candidates from southeastern Pennsylvania have done a bit better.

Former Philadelphia District Attorney Arlen Specter was elected and re-elected repeatedly as a Republican, but he ended his career as a Democrat, while Republican Richard Schweiker represented a suburban Philadelphia congressional district in the House before winning a Senate seat in 1968. He was re-elected six years later but did not seek re-election in 1980.

Democrat Harris Wofford, who won a special election to complete the remainder of the late Sen. John Heinz’s term, was a New Yorker, but he spent eight years as president of Bryn Mawr College, located in Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs.

The lack of success of gubernatorial candidates from metropolitan Philadelphia isn’t a fluke.

Voters in western Pennsylvania have tended to be more loyal to their region, and they have backed their own candidates. And because northeast Pennsylvania voters have more in common culturally with western Pennsylvania voters than with Philadelphia-area voters, it isn’t surprising that candidates from southeastern Pennsylvania have trouble running statewide.

But given the commonwealth’s recent voting patterns, Philadelphia-based candidates may now be stronger within the Democratic Party than they were 30 or 40 years ago.

So far this cycle, two heavyweights for the Democratic nomination for governor, Schwartz and state Treasurer Rob McCord, are from the southeast. Former Rep. Joe Sestak, who represented the Philadelphia suburbs, is mentioned but has not said he is running. At least a couple of other interesting candidates from the region also are running, as is a wealthy businessman from York, which is west of Philadelphia and southeast of Harrisburg.

A major candidate from western Pennsylvania has not yet joined in the race, but that could change, especially if the overabundance of hopefuls from the southeast creates a clear route to victory for an ambitious Pittsburgh-area Democrat.

The Democratic nomination for governor is valuable this year because the incumbent Republican governor’s job approval numbers are mediocre. But the question remains: How will the state’s geography play in 2014?