Democrat Tom Wolf, who gave $10 million of his own money to underwrite an early TV ad campaign that endeared the businessman and first-time candidate to voters, unseated Gov. Tom Corbett on Tuesday, sending the unpopular incumbent to a historic defeat.
In a $73 million-and-counting race that smashed Pennsylvania's campaign spending record, Corbett became the first governor to go down in defeat in the four decades since the state's chief executive was allowed to run for a second term. The former two-term state attorney general could not overcome a rocky first term — in particular, Corbett struggled to defend budget-balancing cuts in aid to public schools.
Democrats were united against Corbett and his record as a fiscal and social conservative didn't inspire many Republicans.
When he takes office in January, Wolf will face a Republican-controlled Legislature and a yawning budget deficit as he tries to make good on a promise to dramatically increase the state government's share of public school costs.
Wolf drove into his election night party at the Utz Arena in York in his now-famous Jeep Wrangler to the eruption of cheers from hundreds of supporters.
"Let's make this the time, let's make this the place, Pennsylvania, let's us be the people to actually create this bright future we deserve, let's make this the time, let's get started," Wolf told the crowd.
Wolf said the state must take risks and lose fear of the future to transform itself, "because if we don't, we're going to continue to be consigned to a dead end."
Corbett's concession speech was at times somber and feisty, telling the crowd at a downtown Pittsburgh hotel that he took office determined to deliver on his 2010 campaign promises.
"And when I made those promises, I said I was going to do what is right for Pennsylvania, the tough decisions, and people may not like it," Corbett told several hundred supporters, including a few who cried. "Well, obviously they didn't like it. I said I may be a one-term governor, and I am, but I am proud of what we did."
With nearly all precincts reporting, Wolf led with 55 percent of the vote to Corbett's 45 percent. Pennsylvania's congressional delegation picked up two new members in Tuesday's balloting, but Republicans maintained their 13-5 majority. Republican Ryan Costello, a Chester County commissioner, won the 6th District and Democrat Brendan Boyle, a state lawmaker, won the 13th District.
Wolf, 65, from the tiny town of Mount Wolf, named after an ancestor, will become the 47th governor of Pennsylvania and the first since Richard Thornburgh in 1979 never to have held elective office.
He led his family's cabinetry and building materials distribution business in central Pennsylvania for much of the past three decades, becoming a pillar of York's business, civic and philanthropic community.
In spite of a two-year stint as former Gov. Ed Rendell's revenue secretary, a job for which he donated his salary, he remained a political unknown until he began a folksy ad campaign last winter in which he promised to be a "different kind of governor."
He introduced himself to voters as a mild-mannered small-town businessman who had gone to India with the Peace Corps, earned a Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and shared profits with the employees at his company. In an expensive Democratic primary, he easily defeated three rivals who were far more seasoned in politics.
Wolf won favor by promising to slap higher taxes on the state's booming natural gas industry to make it pay its "fair share" and restore $1 billion that Corbett had cut from education aid. He also argued against the need to scale back pension benefits for future school and state employees, despite the state's huge pension debt.
Corbett, meanwhile, struggled to overcome a long list of liabilities in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans 4-to-3. Among them: the deep cuts in education; refusing to raise taxes on the natural gas industry; breaking a no-tax-hike pledge by signing a large increase on vehicle fuel; comparing gay marriage to sister-brother marriages; and backing a tough voter identification bill that was struck down in court.
Late in the campaign, Corbett found a focus for his attacks: Wolf's proposal to restructure the income tax to shift a bigger burden onto higher earners, while lowering the state's hated school property tax. But Wolf struggled to explain who would pay more and who would pay less under his proposal, and Corbett portrayed it as a secret plan for a huge middle-class tax increase.
In contrast to his last campaign, Corbett lost support across the board — among men, women and all age groups and income levels, according to the preliminary results of an exit poll conducted for the AP and the television networks.
Wolf got strong backing from voters under 50, with about 6 in 10 casting ballots for him.
David Mason, 70, a retiree from suburban Harrisburg, answered quickly when asked why he voted for Wolf: "'Why Corbett?' would be my question."