HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — Gov. Tom Corbett has been trailing in the polls for so long that the political conservation in Pennsylvania is shifting away from whether the Republican can make his race competitive.
Nowadays, party officials and campaign strategists are increasingly analyzing the spillover effect that could be felt in lower-ballot races for seats in Congress and the state Legislature if Corbett is thumped by Democratic challenger Tom Wolf.
In political parlance, it's the "coattails" theory — the worse Corbett does, the worse every other Republican candidate does.
"In a close down-ballot race, what happens at the top of the ticket can decide the outcome," said Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based Democratic Party strategist with the Dover Group.
The Nov. 4 election is a particularly sensitive one for Republicans. Six of seven GOP-held state Senate seats in the closely divided Philadelphia suburbs are up for re-election, and the loss of two seats could leave the 50-member chamber deadlocked. Meanwhile, Republicans are defending their generous complement of 13 seats to Democrats' five in the U.S. House.
In a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans four-to-three, a poll from Quinnipiac University earlier this month was perhaps the surest sign that Corbett's uphill slog against his unpopularity is turning into a Himalayan mountain climb.
The university found that, with eight weeks before the election, Wolf led Corbett 59 percent to 35 percent among more than 1,100 people deemed likely to vote. Of Wolf's supporters, 51 percent said their vote is mainly against Corbett. More than half of the people asked — 55 percent — viewed Corbett unfavorably.
Generally, the worry for Republicans is that party voters who are turned off by Corbett will simply stay home.
At least publicly, Republican Party officials maintain that polls and coattail effects are generally overrated, and that Corbett has enough time — seven weeks — to turn around perceptions of his handling of public school funding and the natural gas industry.
"I think that's tons of time to get your message out more thoroughly," said Bucks County GOP chairwoman Pat Poprik.
But a potential 10- or 20-point victory for Wolf has some campaign consultants reaching for an example from the past.
Democrats like to bring up 2006, when Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell coasted to re-election and the unpopular Republican U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum lost badly to Democrat Bob Casey. Democrats flipped control of the state House of Representatives and captured four U.S. House seats.
Republicans counter that the president, this time, is a Democrat rather than a Republican. That, they say, should motivate Republican voters who oppose President Barack Obama and who will support the rest of the Republican ticket, if not Corbett.
"This is a unique election in that I think there's going to be a lot of ticket splitting," said Ryan Shafik, founder of the Harrisburg-based campaign consultancy Rockwood Strategies. "There might be a heavy anti-Corbett vote, but that doesn't mean the Republican candidates will suffer."
Andrew Reilly, Delaware County's GOP chairman, said the national news is unfavorable to Obama. Meanwhile, lawmakers go door-to-door talking to voters and are able to leave positive, first-hand impressions to insulate themselves, Reilly said.
"So if there is any (anti-Corbett coattail) effect, it will be dampened," he said.
There is no tell-tale sign, such as a huge influx of out-of-state campaign cash, that a U.S. House seat is in danger of flipping from Republican to Democrat. But Corbett is a prominent figure in legislative races.
Democrats in at least three state Senate races have aired TV ads that attack Corbett. Meanwhile, at least two Republican Senate candidates — Bucks County Sen. Robert M. Tomlinson and Delaware County Councilman Tom McGarrigle — have broken with Corbett to support a new tax on Pennsylvania's booming natural gas industry. Tomlinson touted it in a TV ad, saying he "even went against Gov. Corbett."
Marcel Groen, Montgomery County's Democratic Party chairman, said he expects the GOP will spend more campaign money than the party otherwise would to motivate Republican voters in sensitive legislative or congressional districts.
"I'm looking at (polling) numbers in specific legislative races where we're either up by a couple points or behind by a couple points, and these are typically Republican areas," Groen said. "And I'm looking at numbers which indicate that Tom (Wolf)' s winning those districts by between 15 and 20 points. In a close race, his numbers make a huge difference."
Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/timelywriter.