Pennsylvania elects first female and first Democratic attorney general

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November 15, 2012

By Maresa Strano


HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania: Since declaring her candidacy amid little fanfare, newly minted attorney general-elect Kathleen Kane has risen meteorically in Pennsylvania's political ranks. The former Lackawanna prosecutor is the first woman to be elected attorney general in the state's history, and she was the highest vote-getter of any Pennsylvania candidate in last week's general election.

In the Democratic primary, which took place on April 24th, Kane overcame former U.S. Congressman and presumptive nominee Patrick Murphy to earn a place on the November ballot alongside Cumberland County District Attorney and GOP darling David Freed. She defeated Freed in the general election by a margin of approximately 14 percentage points, according to unofficial results provided by the Pennsylvania Department of State.(Libertarian Marakay Rogers also competed in the general election, siphoning 2.3% of the vote from her major party opponents).[1] A 1978 law changed the attorney general from an appointed to an elected office in Pennsylvania; since debuting on the ballot in 1980, only Republicans have been elected to serve as the state's top cop, until Kane.

Kane's dominance at the polls last week can be attributed to a number of factors, most notably the earnest support of former President Bill Clinton - who knew Kane from 2008 when she left her job in the District Attorney's office to campaign for Hillary Rodham Clinton - and the faltering popularity of the Republican party among Keystone voters, with Gov. Tom Corbett at the helm. Recent polls show that Corbett's disapproval rating averages about 10% higher than his approval rating, figures which also reflect public sentiments about an issue predating his reign as governor.[2]

Before Corbett was elected governor, he was the attorney general. As attorney general, he initiated the three year grand jury investigation into Jerry Sandusky which culminated in recent months under the purview of Corbett's appointed replacement, Linda Kelly. Consistent with Kane's background as a self-styled sex-abuse specialist, her central campaign promise was to launch a formal review of Corbett's handling of the investigation, particularly his decision to use a grand jury. In so doing, she "turned the race into a partial referendum on Corbett."[3] Even though Sandusky was ultimately convicted of 45 counts of sexual abuse and will likely die in prison, almost 50% of voters said in September that they agreed with Kane about the review, and .[4] At the time that poll was conducted, Corbett was averaging a disapproval rating of 45% compared to 32% average approval.

Corbett's struggle to secure the confidence of many voters on the Sandusky issue as well as issues directly concerning his performance as governor - deep education cuts, voter-ID, sluggish progress in GOP-backed legislation -[5] illustrate bigger picture challenges now facing the Republican party in Pennsylvania, as evidenced by the overwhelming Democratic turnout on election day.[6] Well in advance of the primary, party operatives referred to Freed's campaign for attorney general as Corbett's "top electoral priority in 2012."[7] Corbett also campaigned heavily for Republican Tom Smith, who sought to unseat Bob Casey, Jr. (D) in the U.S. Senate. Both candidates were defeated at the polls Tuesday, along with GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, whom Corbett endorsed, and the Republican candidates for state treasurer and state auditor.[1][8]

Kane will be sworn as attorney general on January 15, 2013. At some point thereafter, she intends to do a review of Corbett's handling of the Sandusky investigation. Time will tell what lasting impact, if any, the continued attention will have on the governor, who said at a press conference last week that he planned to run for a second term 2014.[3]

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