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By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times

There are a host of primaries on Tuesday in states across the country, but for one that shows just how effective money can be in politics, look no further than Pennsylvania.

Four Democrats are competing to run against Republican Governor Tom Corbett, widely thought to be one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country this election year. Voters are unhappy with Corbett because of cuts to education funding, and because of the state’s moribund economy.

If voters don’t like how Corbett has handled the state, Democrats have an answer for how they would change things. Trouble is, most of the positions of the four Democratic candidates on the issues are the same. They all want more education spending, they all want a severance tax on the natural gas industry, they all want more environmental regulations on the industry.

How to differentiate between them, then? The answer, of course, is money.

Candidate Tom Wolf, a virtual unknown in the race, has given himself $10 million to spend on the race, in addition to raising $4.5 million more. He did an initial TV buy in late January and early February, airing 1,800 TV commercials in four markets. He was initially the only candidate on the air.

“They were maybe the best introductory commercials of a candidate in modern Pennsylvania history,” said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Pennsylvania. “They were very, very well done, and they shocked the political world because they were so effective.”

Wolf’s ads highlighted his personal biography: He has a Ph.D. from MIT, served in the Peace Corps and ran his family’s large business.

Wolf’s polling numbers skyrocketed after the initial ads. Two surveys by Republican firm Harper Polling firm show the jump — a November 2013 poll had Wolf at 5 percent, putting him in fourth place among Democrats. After Wolf’s ads began to hit the airwaves, that equation changed completely. In February, Wolf was at 40 percent, running far above three other candidates.

Little has changed since then, though the Democratic challengers have tried to differentiate themselves and bring down Wolf at the same time. Wolf has spent an estimated $1 million a week on television ads.

“He built this huge lead and he’s maintained it despite repeated efforts to bring him down,” Madonna said.

Wolf is up against state treasurer Rob McCord, who spent nearly $8 million on his campaign; U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who has spent $7.5 million of the $8.8 million she’s raised; and former state environmental protection secretary Katie McGinty, who has spent about $500,000.

Of course, money doesn’t always work. Linda McMahon, a Connecticut Republican, spent about $100 million of her own money in 2010 and 2012 trying to win a race for U.S. Senate. She was not elected either time, giving her a kinship with California’s Meg Whitman, who spent $144 million of her own money — and $33 million raised from others — in her unsuccessful bid for governor in 2010.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

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