These 3 Improbable Events Will Give Tom Corbett Re-election

The governor is almost universally loathed. But he can win re-election. Here's how.

PA Governor Tom Corbett

In retrospect, Tom Corbett’s haplessness as governor has been almost comical. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day, they say, but is there anything Corbett has gotten right since ascending to the top spot in Harrisburg?

He spent his first campaign blaming unemployment on Pennsylvanians’ desire to collect government benefits. He signed off on a Voter ID bill that was a plain attempt to keep Democrats from the polls. (It lost in court.)  He signed off on a lawsuit to challenge the NCAA’s authority to penalize Penn State in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. (It lost in court.) He withheld state money from the Philadelphia school district in an apparent effort to break the teachers union here, only to have to back down when a student died, allegedly unable to get help for her asthma from her staff-deprived school. He finally came to visit a Philadelphia school after years of being portrayed as the enemy of those schools — but ran away before being afflicted with the site of protesters.

And while all this has happened, Pennsylvania economic growth has been anemic — and the jobs that have been added to our economy have been low-wage junior staff positions generally unfit for supporting a family.

At least he didn’t raise taxes.

The Tom Corbett re-election campaign is running with a motto of “promises kept,” but his dismal poll numbers indicate that Pennsylvanians don’t care what he accomplished — because those accomplishments weren’t aligned with their own wants and needs. It’s tough to see a scenario under which the governor gains re-election this year.

But anything could happen. With some savvy and a bit of luck, Corbett’s job could be saved. Three things have to occur, however.

• He must apologize. Corbett’s so unpopular that his path to re-election basically involves refuting his own record. “I kept taxes low,” he can say in his apology speech, “but my focus on that was so relentless that I failed to work hard enough to grow the economy, support our schools, or affirm the rights of Pennsylvania citizens at the polls. I’m sorry. I know what I need to fix, and I promise a second Corbett term will be guided by the lessons unfortunately learned in the first.”

• He needs an economic development home run. This is where luck gets to be involved, but before November Corbett needs to lure a high-wage business with lots of jobs: Probably the headquarters of a major company, to Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, or a major manufacturing facility: Think something Boeing-sized. Even if 2014 is otherwise a good job creation year in Pennsylvania, the “Corbett is ineffective” narrative has taken hold so strongly that he’ll need a major announcement, the kind that can earn bipartisan praise, to be effective. Is such a deal on the horizon? You could argue he should get some credit for the announcement of the new Comcast tower and the jobs that should generate, but I don’t sense it’s generating much momentum for him. It’s tough to see what the opportunities might be. Which is why some luck will be needed here. Here, at least, Corbett also has the opportunity to make his own luck.

Penn State needs to go undefeated in football.  And here, Corbett depends entirely upon the football gods for favor. Like it or not, his tenure in office has coincided with the darkest moments of the state’s most popular athletic program — alumni across the state derive a goodly chunk of their identities, and their self-esteem, from their alma mater, its football program, and the performance of that program on and off the field. Penn State still is under sanctions from the Sandusky affair; the Nittany Lions cannot play in a bowl this year. But if the team went undefeated and had a plausible claim at contending for a (hypothetical) national championship by next November, the rising cheer might lift a number of boats — including Corbett’s.

Now: The chances of any one of these three things happening seem less than 50 percent. Politicians don’t apologize, Corbett hasn’t shown himself capable of the economic home run, and Penn State will be on its third coach in four years. To stay in office, Tom Corbett is going to need a lucky streak the size of which this state has never seen.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.