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Resurgent Pennsylvania GOP making the case for putting the state in play

At this week’s Republican convention in Tampa, one of the tasks of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and state party chairman Rob Gleason is to convince party activists that their state really is winnable for Mitt Romney, firing the delegates up so “when they go back to Pennsylvania they hit the ground running,” as Corbett said Monday.

But there are reasons to doubt that Pennsylvania will be one of the states where Romney and President Barack Obama will be fighting it out 60 days from now in the closing phase of the campaign.

  • First, the Democrats enjoy an edge in voter registration over Republicans in Pennsylvania of well over one million voters. In the city of Philadelphia the Democratic voter registration advantage is better than 6 to 1, which is one reason why healthy turnout in Philadelphia is vital to Obama and to any Democratic presidential candidate. In some jeopardy in Pennsylvania just eight days before the 2004 election, Democratic candidate John Kerry brought in former president Bill Clinton, recuperating from heart bypass surgery, to join him at a rally in downtown Philadelphia. Kerry ended up winning the state by 144,000.
  • No Democrat has lost the state since Mike Dukakis in 1988. Obama carried it by 620,000 votes in 2008 and his margin in Philadelphia was nearly 480,000 votes, margins that will be very hard for Romney to erode and overcome, especially if he’s investing most of his time and campaign advertising dollars in places such as Ohio and Florida.
  • In 2008, Obama carried bellwether exurban Chester County which George W. Bush had carried fairly easily in 2000 and 2004  -- Democrats see this as evidence that highly affluent, college-educated exurban voters are trending Democratic over the long term.
  • The latest Franklin & Marshall poll shows Obama with a six percentage point lead in the state, 44 percent to 38 percent, over Romney, with 15 percent undecided.
  • So far, both sides' ad spending in Pennsylvania has been modest, compared to what they've been spending in states such as Ohio, Virginia, and Nevada. Three Republican groups have spent more than $11 million on TV ads, according to NBC's ad-tracking data, but Romney's own campaign has yet to spend any money on TV in Pennsylvania. The Obama campaign and an allied group, Priorities USA, have spent $8 million on TV so far in the state.
  • Finally, if voter sentiment turns really sour on Obama in September and October he’ll be fighting for survival in other places such as Virginia, Iowa, and Florida, and not just in Pennsylvania.

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Yet, having said all that, Republicans scored some remarkable successes in Pennsylvania in the 2010 elections: gaining 15 seats in the state House, taking control of the legislature (and thus of re-districting), electing a Republican governor, a United States senator, Pat Toomey, and gaining five House seats that Democrats had held, most significantly in battleground Bucks County and Delaware County in the suburbs outside Philadelphia.

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In an interview, Gleason explained that Republicans built on their successes in the 2010 elections in 2011: “Last year in our local grassroots elections, we took 53 counties, we’ve never had 53 counties before (out of 67 counties in the state); we have courthouse control of the commissioners. So our grassroots is playing really well.”

And he noted that in every mail piece the state GOP sent out in county commissioner races last year, “We had Obama’s picture on them” -- linking the president to local Democratic candidates.

Gleason has been state party chairman for a long stretch, six years, and he said, “I’ve learned a lot of lessons – Barack Obama taught me a few four years ago.”

Gleason kept his state party staff on the payroll after the 2010 elections. “In the old days they would lay people off after the election and just wait for the next one. I’ve had the same team working around the state: our job is turnout.”

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“Mitt Romney has to sell himself. I think that he is doing a good job,” he said. “He plays really well in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where John McCain maybe didn’t and maybe some other people didn’t. There are a lot of independents there now and they see Mitt Romney as a bit more moderate than some of candidates in the past.”

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But he said Philadelphia is “where we get crushed. We lost it by 478,000 votes in 2008….Our biggest problem was that there are 1,999 precincts” in Philadelphia “and in 1,000 of them we didn’t have a Republican on the election board. You’re allowed to have a minimum of two Republicans on the (five-member) board. We didn’t have any…. I hope that by Election Day we’ll only have 600 uncovered.”

The importance of having Republicans on local elections boards is that now with state law requiring photo ID for voters, “they’ll make sure everybody shows a photo ID.”

On Sept. 13, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that allowed the voter identification law which Corbett signed last year to be enforced in the Nov. 6 election.\

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Even if the court blocks enforcement of the law, or if the Justice Department intervenes in the dispute, Gleason said, “Enough has been said; everybody’s heard about it. No matter what they (the courts) decide now, people think you’ve got to have it.”

And some Republicans think the voter ID requirement will deter the use of “street money” which some Republicans allege Democrats use to pay people to cast votes using the names of deceased voters.

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Gleason said it would be “a wonderful victory for me” to hold Obama’s margin in Philadelphia to under 400,000.

“We lost the suburbs by 200,000, but this time he said “we going to win the suburbs this time. That (2008) was a whole different ball game.”

Referring to Gleason and his team, Franklin & Marshall College pollster and political scientist Terry Madonna said, “I think they did learn a lesson (from the 2008 campaign) about the organizational side of things.”

But he noted that every poll in Pennsylvania shows Romney behind. And Madonna asked, “What is their plan to win the Philadelphia suburbs?”