"This is by no means the last announcement."
Those chilling words were spoken by Republican Attorney General Tom Corbett during last Thursday's press conference revealing indictments against twelve top House Democrat officials and operatives for their involvement in the so-called "Bonusgate" scandal. And given the apparent scope of corruption he is investigating on Capitol Hill, the Attorney General is probably correct.
Such news conferences could become a relatively regular event over the next few weeks. However, the way Corbett handles the investigation and prosecution of the scandal between now and November could have a make or break effect on his re-election chances.
On election night in 2004 most political observers went to bed thinking Tom Corbett had lost, only to find the next morning that he squeaked by to win by a margin of 109,000 votes. The heavily Republican "T" (central and northern Pennsylvania) reported votes last and provided Corbett's margin of victory.
This year it is only going to be more difficult for any Republican to win statewide. The political environment nationwide is toxic for Republicans, especially incumbents. The situation is even more pronounced in Pennsylvania where the ranks of Democrats have swelled by almost 400,000, while the GOP has seen a net loss of 83,000 since 2006. Corbett thus has a steeper hill to climb. He also faces an adequately funded, well known "pro-life, pro-gun" Democrat from the Lehigh Valley in Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli.
So how does Corbett survive reelection this year with the odds stacked against him? Money, which he has and will have, will not be as big of a factor since the $3 to $5 million he will probably raise will be drowned out by the $75 to $100 million spent by candidates and their surrogates on the Presidential contest, competitive Congressional races, and a wide range of state races.
How does somebody get their message out with all that noise? Thursday's news conference provided a glimpse of how Tom Corbett could be the lone Republican to win statewide. Better than any television advertisement, direct mail piece, phone call or other campaign tactic is having your name on the front page of every local paper and leading the local newscasts as a no nonsense corruption fighting Attorney General. This is the picture that voters are seeing of Tom Corbett now.
However, that could all change -- and change quickly. While the House Democrats were completely sloppy in their greedy pursuit of power, Republicans were a lot more careful about covering their tracks. It's a horribly kept secret among the chatting class, political insiders, and reporters in Harrisburg that Republicans had a similar bonus system in place, however, it was not nearly as wide in scope and was much less careless than was the Democratic program.
Attorney General Corbett is investigating all four caucuses and properly cannot comment on an on-going investigation. This has led to constant grumbling by Democrats, some members of the media, and disaffected conservatives that Corbett is only investigating and indicting Democrats. This aura of selective prosecution by an ambitious politician could spell trouble for the Attorney General.
In Corbett's defense, House Democrats were the low hanging fruit with the sloppiness and arrogance of their behavior. It could take longer to bring charges against the Republicans who are known to have been more meticulous in their efforts, thereby requiring a longer investigation. In the end though, Corbett might not legitimately be able to find enough evidence to indict anyone on the Republican side of the aisle.
Justifiably or unjustifiably, this reason doesn't sit well politically with many Democrats, nor does it satisfy the calls for a complete house cleaning from the media and government reform advocates.
This then is the dilemma facing Tom Corbett. The prevailing thought among his critics is that there is definitely enough evidence to indict some top House and Senate Republican officials as well. Consequently, if Corbett doesn't indict any Republicans, he will face unrelenting attacks by Democrats and the news media who will paint him as a politically motivated Attorney General.
At that point, the local newscasts and front page stories won't look as favorably on him as they did last week. If the media turns on him, Democrats go on the attack, and conservative Republicans feel cheated out of another opportunity for reform, Tom Corbett's chance for reelection will begin to fade drastically.
What is an Attorney General to do?
Ryan M. Shafik is the Communications Director for the Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc., a Harrisburg-based educational foundation. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.