In the hunt for a Democratic majority, Wolf pumps $1.3 million into state legislative races

Gov. Tom Wolf and Democratic legislators at a press conference in 2019. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

In the lead up to the last major election he’ll see as governor of Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has given more than $1.3 million to 39 state House and Senate candidates in hopes of flipping a legislative chamber this November.

Wolf, who entered office in 2014 and will reach the end of his final term in 2022, has only ever negotiated with a GOP-controlled Legislature.

But he hopes that shoring up a Democratic majority in the statehouse this year will allow him to deliver on some of his unrealized policy priorities in the final years of his administration.

“This is the last shot [Wolf] has to win either chamber and he is going to do anything he can to do that,” Jeff Sheridan, a senior Wolf political advisor, told the Capital-Star.

Since he defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in 2014, Wolf has crafted some bipartisan compromises with Republican leaders in the Legislature. Together, they’ve hammered out bills allowing alcohol sales in grocery stores, approved medical marijuana, and created automatic criminal record expungement for low-level offenders. 

But this relationship between Wolf and Republican leadership has not always been productive. It has also produced three budget impasses, and led the governor to lean on his executive powers, particularly amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He’s vetoed 42 bills during his tenure, striking down everything from abortion restrictions to COVID-19 reopening proposals.

Some of Wolf’s pet policy priorities — including a minimum wage hike, tighter gun control measures, and, more recently, the legalization of recreational marijuana — have, in turn, languished in Republican-controlled committees. 

That would change if Democrats controlled a legislative chamber – something they haven’t done since 2010. And Wolf – a prolific fundraiser who cruised to reelection in 2018 – is spending down his campaign coffers to make it happen.

Control of the chambers wouldn’t just let Democrats prioritize their agenda, from expanding LGBTQ rights to approving paid family leave. It would also give them a stronger hand when redrawing the political maps in 2021.

Democrats have to flip nine seats to control the House and four seats to create a tie in the Senate – a balance that would give them an effective majority in the upper chamber, since Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democrat, can cast tie-breaking votes on some procedural measures. 

Wolf started the 2020 election year with $2.8 million in reserves for Wolf PAC, the political action committee he registered in 2013 and infused with $10 million from his own fortune for his first gubernatorial run the following year. 

Campaign Finance 101: How big money influences our politics, and how small money could be an answer

Wolf already spent more than $85,000 this spring to help his favored candidates in legislative primary races. 

During the most recent campaign finance reporting period, which spanned June 23 to Sept. 14, most of Wolf’s dollars went to Democrats trying to flip red seats. But he also donated money to some incumbents running in battleground districts.

His contributions included $100,000 and $25,000, respectively, to Pittsburgh-area Democratic state Sens. Pam Iovino and Jim Brewster, as well as $25,000 each to northeastern state Reps. Bridget Kosierowski and Mike Carroll.

All those incumbent candidates represent districts districts Trump won in 2016; Brewster is facing his first challenger in more than a decade.

Wolf’s biggest donations went to newcomer candidates George Scott and Julie Slomski, who both received $150,000 from Wolf for their races against vulnerable Republican senators. 

Scott, a pastor and one-time congressional candidate, is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. John DiSanto for his seat representing parts of Dauphin and Perry Counties. 

Slomski, a former legislative staffer and Wolf administration adviser, will face off against Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie. He also donated to her in her competitive primary race.

Laughlin’s Erie district has been identified as one of the most contested in Pennsylvania, attracting attention from national Democratic organizations who hope to flip it blue. 

Former Lancaster City Council president Janet Diaz, who’s facing off against GOP Sen. Scott Martin to represent parts of Lancaster County, also received $50,000. 

Wolf gave $25,000 to Senate candidate John Kane’s campaign against state Sen. Tom Killion, a moderate Republican who’s considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the state. 

In the state House, Wolf gave $30,000 each to 14 challengers running everywhere from the Poconos to the Capital region to suburban Pittsburgh.

Most of this financial attention was on the Philadelphia suburbs, however. Eight of those candidates are running against Republican incumbents viewed as vulnerable in 2020, including Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, Rep. Chris Quinn, R-Delaware, and multiple Bucks County lawmakers.

Another 19 House hopefuls received $20,000 or less from Wolf, including incumbents and challengers.

Wolf also gave $100,000 each to both the House and Senate Democratic Campaign Committees, and $10,000 to state Treasurer Joe Torsella and Auditor General contender Nina Ahmad.

In total, Wolf has collected $71.7 million in political contributions since 2013, and has spent $70.6 million of it.

His latest campaign finance filing shows that his fundraising is slowing compared to his spending. His PAC took in just shy of $700,000 in contributions between June 23 and Sept. 14, records show – including a $50,000 donation from Wolf himself, and $50,000 each from Steamfitters unions in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh; and 25,000 from Comcast, the Philadelphia-based internet service provider. 

Sheridan said that Wolf has already spent more money since the reporting period ended Sept. 14 and will continue to raise and donate funds until the final week of the campaign.