Gov. Tom Wolf may not have any races left to run, but with parts of his longtime agenda still unfinished — from enacting a natural gas severance tax to legalizing recreational marijuana use — the term-limited Democratic governor’s campaign operation in 2020 is as active as ever.
Bolstered by both a strong fundraising effort and hundreds of thousands in personal funds, Wolf’s political action committee has raised more than $4 million since his 2018 reelection. That money is mostly being used to support down-ballot Democrats in hopes of flipping control of the state Legislature, which would give the party more control in Harrisburg for Wolf’s final two years in office. A governor is limited to two four-year terms in Pennsylvania.
The governor’s committee, called Wolf PAC, has contributed $2.4 million to candidates since his reelection. More than $1.3 million of that was just over this last summer, making it one of the biggest players in Pennsylvania campaigns this year. It also had $1.1 million left in the bank as of mid-September, according to recent campaign finance filings.
“He very much believes that part of his role as the leader of the state is to build an infrastructure that can be a lasting operation beyond his time in office,” Jeff Sheridan, Wolf PAC operative and Wolf’s former campaign manager and spokesman, said in an interview this summer.
Democrats would need to gain four seats in the Senate and nine seats in the House to overturn Republican majorities that have acted as an effective backstop to Wolf’s biggest priorities ever since he came to Harrisburg.
Focus on flipping
Observers like Robert Speel, a political science professor at Penn State,
said Wolf is likely most focused on helping Democrats secure a majority in the state Senate. And a look at his recent campaign filings reveals exactly where Wolf thinks that path to the majority lies. Since the June 2 primary, Wolf PAC has directed $625,000 to six state Senate races. Of the six, four are GOP-held seats.
The Democratic challengers Wolf contributed to are Janet Diaz, running against Sen. Scott Martin in Lancaster County; George Scott, running against Sen. John DiSanto in Dauphin County; John Kane, running against Sen. Tom Killion in Delaware County; and Julie Slomski, running against Sen. Dan Laughlin in Erie County.
The incumbents receiving Wolf PAC support are Sen. Pam Iovino, who faces Republican challenger Devlin Robinson, and Sen. Jim Brewster, who faces Republican challenger Nicole Ziccarelli. Both of those districts are based in Allegheny County.
Since the primary, Wolf PAC has also prioritized state House campaigns, spending $610,000 across 34 races.
Wolf’s first foray into politics— his 2014 race for governor— showed that he was not afraid to pour his personal wealth into a campaign. In that race, he spent $10 million of his own money.
The strategy was unusual in Pennsylvania political history, but it worked, said J. Wesley Leckrone, political science professor at Widener University.
“He spent a ton of money (in his first primary) and all of a sudden, he rocketed to the top of that class, so I think it really helped him get the Democratic nomination,” Leckrone said.
The governor’s focus on winning competitive Senate seats began in 2019 when he donated $500,000 of his personal money to Wolf PAC, which in turn contributed the same amount to Iovino, who was able to flip a Republican Senate seat in a special election.
That was the last time Wolf personally donated to the PAC until he added
$50,000 to it in September.
Wolf has an unlikely — but not impossible — shot at gaining a Democratic majority in one or both chambers, Leckrone said, which would help him better negotiate with the General Assembly.
At stake for Wolf are priorities like the severance tax on natural gas drilling that he’s proposed in every state budget since he was elected, and a $4.5 billion infrastructure initiative that he offered in 2019.
Campaigns in the spotlight
Sheridan said Wolf puts in an “unbelievable” amount of effort into raising money for Pennsylvania Democrats, and that since CO-VID 19 hit, Wolf has been maintaining relationships with some of the party’s regular donors since they can no longer attend inperson fundraisers.
“You would be hard pressed to find anyone else in the country who does this sort of service,” Sheridan said of Wolf’s attention to down-ballot candidates.
Wolf’s fundraising after his reelection also isn’t unusual in Pennsylvania.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell raised nearly $3 million and spent more than $1.8 million during the same period in his second term — 2007 through 2008. Rendell spent this money on campaigns for the state House and state Senate, local races, and other PACs with Democratic ties.
“Governor Rendell was probably trying to curry political support from Democratic incumbents in the General Assembly when he was governor, and you can do that by giving smaller donations to lots of people,” Speel said. “Whereas if you want to flip the legislative majority in Harrisburg, you need to give larger donations to people who have a better chance of winning.”
Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who succeeded Rendell, lost to Wolf in his reelection campaign in 2014. His political committees also contributed to Republican PACs while he was in office, though his direct contributions to legislative candidates were far fewer.
Based on Wolf PAC contributions since 2019, Leckrone said Wolf is focused on campaigns where he has a personal stake and interest.
Slomski, the challenger in the 49th Senate District, worked for the Wolf administration as northwest regional director in Erie County.
Amanda Cappelletti, who received $25,000 from the PAC in early May, was running in the 17th District Democratic primary against three-term Montgomery County state Sen. Daylin Leach, who Wolf and other top Democrats had asked to resign because of sexual harassment allegations. Cappelletti won and now faces Republican Ellen Fisher in the general election.
Other Democrats who got Wolf’s financial support in the primary included: — State Rep. Carolyn Comitta, D-Chester, who got $25,000 and won a competitive primary for the 19th Senate District in Chester County.
— State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, the chamber’s minority leader, who got $25,000 to help him fight off a primary challenger in the 43rd District.
— State Sen. Larry Farnese, D-Philadelphia, who got $10,000 but lost his primary for the 1st District seat to Nikil Saval.
“This may be a good year for the Democrats in the state,” Speel said. “If Joe Biden were to win Pennsylvania, there’s going to be some coattails … and Wolf may sense this is the year to possibly make that happen— to flip the legislative majority which has been Republican for a long time in Harrisburg.”
— The Caucus writer Sam Janesch contributed to this report.
• Julia Shanahan is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association.