HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania Democrats on Tuesday tapped millionaire businessman Tom Wolf as their nominee to challenge Republican Gov. Tom Corbett after Wolf dug deep into his own pocket to finance months of folksy TV ads that catapulted him to the top of a four-way race.
Returns from nearly 70 percent of the state's precincts showed Wolf with 58 percent of the vote, ahead of U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, state
Treasurer Rob McCord and former state environmental protection secretary Katie McGinty.
Wolf's victory capped a months-long TV courtship of voters with ads that featured his Jeep Wrangler and testimonials from his wife, his two grown daughters and employees of his kitchen cabinet company. Wolf poured $10 million into his campaign, which made him a household name and gave him a crucial early advantage.
In a victory speech at a minor league baseball stadium in his home city of York, Wolf described himself as "the luckiest person on the face of the Earth right now" and went on to attack the policies of the current governor.
"We have a clear choice: 2014 is going to be a very important choice for all of us," he said. "We have a clear record of an administration that wants to hollow out our schools, wants to play fast and loose with jobs, that wants to take our natural assets and play fast and loose with them, and that also wants to have a stacked deck that will actually not have a level playing field."
Corbett is viewed as vulnerable and a Wolf victory in the general election would break a four-decade gubernatorial tradition: ever since the state constitution was changed in 1968 to allow governors to succeed themselves, every governor has been awarded a second term.
Corbett and Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, who were unopposed for the GOP nomination, said in a statement they would scrutinize Wolf's "made-for-TV campaign" and expose his "tax-and-spend policies." The incumbents said they would press their "more jobs, less taxes" motto.
State Sen. Mike Stack, of Philadelphia, won the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor and will be Wolf's running mate.
Voters also on Tuesday chose nominees for the state's 18 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, all 203 state House seats and half the 50 state Senate seats.
After casting his ballot in the central Pennsylvania town of Mount Wolf - a town named for his ancestors - Wolf said his campaign had resonated with voters because he is a "different kind of candidate."
Though new at politics, "I have a lot of experience doing things in life," he said.
The four Democratic candidates together raised more than $35 million to compete for the nomination to take on Corbett on Nov. 4.
Many voters agreed with Wolf that his campaign had touched a chord. Philadelphia resident Shawn Chilton said he backed Wolf largely because of his ads. "I got comfortable with him because of that," he said after voting early Tuesday.
Corbett, elected in 2010 largely on his reputation as the state's corruption-fighting attorney general, has been saddled with low job-approval ratings. When he kicked off his re-election campaign in January, one poll showed fewer than half of the state's Republicans believed he deserved another term.
Among the reasons cited by Corbett's critics are his nearly $1 billion education spending cut in his first year and his opposition to efforts to impose an extraction tax on Pennsylvania's thriving natural gas industry, which would produce hundreds of millions of dollars for the state.
Despite running unopposed, Corbett has been running TV ads, including one aimed at Wolf and another that touches on his own unpopularity by saying he didn't go to Harrisburg to make friends but to make tough decisions.
In the highest-profile congressional primary, Democratic state Rep. Brendan Boyle defeated former one-term congresswoman Marjorie Margolies and two other rivals in a four-way battle for the Democratic nomination to succeed Schwartz in the 13th District, which includes parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery counties.