THE HORSE RACE
How money, geography, the mood of the electorate, the Republican Party and Donald Trump could decide the gubernatorial primary this year
Pennsylvania’s four-way Republican gubernatorial primary is seen by most analysts as a contest between House Speaker Mike Turzai and Sen. Scott Wagner, with neither pulling ahead as a clear front-runner.
Several political experts, however, see Wagner with a slight edge because he’s been running for more than a year.
“I’d say it’s between Turzai and Wagner,” said Dick Stewart of New Cumberland, co-chairman of the Central Pennsylvania Republican Committee of the state GOP. “Wagner is very strong. He’s really been out working this.”
There are several key unanswered questions that may shape the race, though. They are:
Will the Republican State Committee endorse a candidate, a move some political experts doubt?
What will the national mood be among voters leading up to the May primary and through November, when the primary winner will face Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf ?
Who will be able to raise enough campaign money to get out their message?
Will gender play a role? Pittsburgh attorney Laura Ellsworth is the only woman in the race.
How big a factor will geography play? Three of the four candidates are from Allegheny County: Turzai, Ellsworth and Paul Mango, a health care consultant and retired Army officer. Will they split the Pittsburgh-area vote to Wagner’s benefit?
“It is still open for any one of the four to emerge,” said Tom Baldino, a political science professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre. He also sees Wagner and Turzai as better known.
All of these factors, combined with the candidates’ stand on issues, are part of the mix that will determine the primary winner. Generally speaking, Mango and Turzai are viewed as the most socially and fiscally conservative.
Wagner is a populist — he’s conservative but not an ideologue. He supports gay rights and an increase in minimum wage, for example.
Less is known about Ellsworth, who has spent her life in the private sector.
Turzai, 58, who had been on the sidelines most of 2017, was the last candidate to enter the race; he jumped in in mid-November.
The other two Allegheny County candidates are lesser-known: Mango, 58, is a West Point and Harvard graduate who spent years with consulting firm McKinsey & Co.; and Ellsworth, 59, is a prominent lawyer with the Jones Day law firm.
Turzai’s late entry could hurt him in making headway, said Joe DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College.
Mango, who is wealthy, told DiSarro he is “willing to spend millions” of his own money on the race. If Mango does so it could become a two-way race between Mango and Wagner, DiSarro said.
The outcome “may depend which way the political winds are blowing,” said Kyle Kopko, a pre-law and political science professor at Elizabethtown College.
Wagner, 62, of York County, is often compared to Trump, whose approval ratings are low and who ushered in a tax plan that may or may not be perceived to be beneficial by the typical voter, Kopko said.
“Since (Wagner) ties himself to Trump he’s at the mercy of that,” said Baldino. It could cut either way.
Pennsylvania is still a state where Trump was able to galvanize his base in 2016, said Stephen Medvic, a government professor at Franklin & Marshall College.
No easy mark
The Republicans are battling to choose a candidate to unseat Wolf, 69, a York businessman who made history by defeating incumbent GOP Gov. Tom Corbett in 2014. Until then, every governor seeking a second term had been returned to office since Democratic Gov. Milton Shapp won re-election in 1974.
Pennsylvania voters changed the Constitution in 1969 to allow governors to serve two four-year terms instead of just one.
Wolf ’s prospects for re-election have improved, analysts say.
“He is beatable, but I don’t believe he’s an easy mark in a year Republicans are facing a stiff head wind,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor and pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
Mid-term congressional elections generally favor the party out of power — the Democrats this November. And the Republicans won’t likely be helped by Trump’s erratic behavior.
The ouster of an incumbent governor typically follows a demand for change by voters — an improvement in the economy, an end to scandal, a reversal of steep spending cuts or huge tax increases.
Voters blamed Corbett for cutting $1 billion from education as the state faced a massive deficit. He belatedly defended himself by stating he didn’t impose cuts but rather did not replace about $1 billion in federal money that was going away.
Insiders and outsiders
The four GOP candidates all appear to want to run as “outsider” candidates, said G. Terry Madonna, political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. But their claim to that title will depend on “how much of an outsider they are,” Madonna said.
He said if voters want “a real outsider,” they might turn to Mango or Ellsworth, who have never held elected office.
Turzai, on the other hand, has been around for decades and Wagner has deep connections to the Republican Party.
Medvic said Turzai is the “natural insider candidate” and Wagner, while he is a sitting legislator, became the Trump-like “outsider grass-roots candidate” with the endorsement of Steve Bannon, a key Trump campaign advisor. Bannon is on the outs with Trump for critical statements Bannon apparently made in a new book, “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff.
Wagner “fits the Trumpian model — brash and in your face,” said Borick.
Turzai, of suburban Pittsburgh, will be portrayed as the establishment candidate, analysts said.
“It’s going to come down to which wing is more powerful right now, which faction here in the state is more powerful, and I don’t know the answer to that,” Medvic said.
Wagner likely has an edge at this point, Madonna said, because he has spent more time campaigning around the state and because his party connections have made him well known among the GOP base.
Wolf is the candidate with the target on his back.
“In some ways they sound very similar on the broad themes they articulate,” Madonna said, noting their talking points of reform, change and criticizing Wolf.
“But they’re four people with widely different backgrounds and dimensions to their campaigns.”
Wagner, the owner of a trash and recycling company, is “blatantly” appealing to the working class base that supports Trump, Madonna said.
“I’ve started this business from the ground up ...” Wagner says in a TV ad called “Tough,” which aired in every major market. “I’ve taken out trash before. Career politicians are going to be real easy.”
Turzai, appearing in a video announcing his campaign at the Bedford Diner, stated: “As speaker, we’ve been the last line of defense against every imaginable scheme to take your taxes and freedom. We’ve stopped billions in taxes ... ”
Mango, meantime, is using his military and business background to heavily criticize Wolf ’s “absentee leadership” and pitch himself as the solution.
“This is my return to public service,” Mango said in an interview this fall with The Caucus. “No one else has the leadership experience, the training, the business experience and the plan to turn around the commonwealth.”
“Leadership is not about being on top, it’s about being out in front … my leadership is all about inspiring people, not intimidating people,” Mango said.
Ellsworth also talks about leadership.
“Being a leader isn’t about you,” Ellsworth states in a video. “It’s about the people you lead. Like a lot of people in Pennsylvania, I am so tired of politicians treating us like we’re stupid. I’m not a professional politician. You bet I’m not. That’s exactly what we need right now.”
Status in Legislature
Wagner is not seeking re-election to the Senate.
While running for governor, Turzai is still running for his House seat.
Some observers have questioned whether Turzai can maintain the speakership while managing a statewide race.
Madonna said Turzai might actually have the time to stay on as speaker throughout a general election campaign because the Legislature could get the budget done quickly and not want to be in session for too many days afterward.
Still, he would likely end up fielding complaints from Democrats saying he’s mixing politics with every legislative duty he has.
Madonna says there will be an aversion in an election year to the late budgets of the last three years and the fiscal chaos from battles with historic Republican majorities in House and Senate.
“He might be Superman and be able to do it (remain speaker), but it’s going to be tough,” said Kopko, adding that he thinks Republican members of the Legislature might have private concerns about Turzai not being able to be a chief fundraiser for the party while he campaigns for himself.
The GOP endorsement
As the campaigns heat up, one of the four candidates could get a major boost in logistical and financial help with the endorsement of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania.
Kopko, a local Republican committeeman in Lancaster County, said he doesn’t think a state party endorsement is likely. Turzai and Wagner are both respected members who have done a lot for the party.
“Even though Wagner is newer, he is largely responsible for getting an increased majority in the Senate,” Kopko said. “He has earned himself a lot of political favors because of that.”