"D-day," June 6, 1944, was the never-to-be-forgotten day allied forces launched the crucial Normandy invasion that ultimately defeated Hitler and ended World War II in Europe. In fact, this year we commemorate the 70-year anniversary of that epic contest.
But a few days before that celebration, Pennsylvania Democratic primary voters will launch their own D-day when they resolve the party's fiercely contested gubernatorial primary on May 20. What started out as a mundane, love-fest has now turned into a nasty ad-and-debate war that has former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Casey calling on one of the candidates to remove a controversial commercial from the air waves.
How the voters will react to a campaign turned negative remains to be seen. But each of the four remaining candidates envisions a path to victory that might take them to the gubernatorial nomination or could send them home.
Tom Wolf has led the pack for five straight weeks by some 25 points, exclusively on the basis of his early, highly effective TV spots. Few virtually unknown candidates have had the kind of meteoric rise in the polls that Wolf has achieved. His media savvy campaign has successfully portrayed him as a friendly, successful business guy. The Ph.D. holding Wolf comes across to voters as mild mannered, polite to a fault, and as a candidate for all seasons. He is campaigning as the non-politician in a year when the approval of politicians has plumbed new low. The key question now: Can Wolf hold on to his imposing lead while his increasingly desperate opponents try to catch him?
Why he wins He does it by continuing his mostly positive campaign, maintaining a strong TV presence, and limiting the inevitable erosion of his wide lead by successfully countering the sharp attacks that have emerged.
How he loses He allows his message to become defensive as attacks mount from hard charging opponents now peppering his campaign with negative ads. Wolf is also vulnerable to a low-turnout election that might favor some of his opponents with Election Day organizations.
Allyson Schwartz the early favorite, she lost that status after doing no media until the latter weeks of the campaign. Lately, she has moved aggressively against Wolf in an effort to cut down his lead. Boldly championing the controversial Affordable Care Act, she supports it loudly and often, laying claim as a prime mover in its enactment. In similarly dramatic fashion she has also introduced gender into the campaign, reminiscent of Kathleen Kane's race in 2012 for Attorney General, running against the Old Boys in Harrisburg. Schwartz's strategy is clear: Win the primary by going after the more liberal vote in Philadelphia, its suburbs and Pittsburgh. Indeed despite a relatively moderate record in Congress, Schwartz is now running as the most liberal candidate in the race.
Why she wins Her liberal tilt develops strong regional support in southeast Pennsylvania, while gender appeals increase her female vote statewide.
How she loses She fails to motivate her base, without establishing a statewide presence -- while her strong liberal positions alienate her from moderates in the party looking for victory in November.
Rob McCord the incumbent state treasurer is the only candidate in the race to have won statewide, doing it twice. His anti-Corbett messages have aided him while he has run an issues-driven campaign, trying to differentiate him from the other candidates -- laying down, for example, a dramatic proposal for taxing the natural gas industry at a 10 percent rate. McCord has aggressively courted endorsement from traditional party interest groups and unions. More recently, like Schwartz, he has sharpened his attacks on front-runner Wolf. McCord, like Schwartz, was an early favorite but lost ground when Tom Wolf ran unanswered TV ads for the early part of the campaign.
Why he wins McCord broadens his base among rank and file Democratic voters with effective media while utilizing his strong union and group support to get out the vote on Election Day. Relatively low voter turnout on Election Day should help him because of his Election Day organization.
How he loses Wolf's solid lead, built on early media, may prove insurmountable especially in a high turnout election. In addition despite his issues campaign McCord has struggled to distinguish himself from the other three candidates. He now may face some criticism for his ads against Wolf.
Kate McGinty if the election were decided on congeniality, McGinty would win hands down. Upbeat, enthusiastic, she routinely scores on likeability. Unfortunately, this is a contest that's all about money and organization, two resources she lacks. She can't make the big media buys or match her opponent's resources. Worse, in a primary unlikely to set turnout records McGinty has few ground resources to get her supporters out on Election Day. Still, in gritty fashion she continues an uphill battle, adroitly positioning herself as everyone's second choice.
Why she wins She maintains her posture as the acceptable alternative nominee while the remaining candidates take each other out with sharply negative campaigning and other attacks. McGinty becomes the last one standing.
How she loses Bereft of major resources she fails to get her message out while the other candidates wage an expensive air and ground battle.
A sobering postscript
May 20 could be the last race for the losers. There may be no second act in Pennsylvania politics for Wolf, Schwartz or McCord. For them, Democratic D-day is also do-or-die day.
Madonna is Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, and Young is a former Professor of Politics and Public Affairs at Penn State University and Managing Partner of Michael Young Strategic Research. They write for the Center for Politics and Public Affairs of Lancaster.