HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Republican Party voters aiming to make Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf into Pennsylvania’s second straight “one-term Tom” will choose in Tuesday’s primary between the garbage man who intends to clean up state government, the conservative military man who says he’s got the business know-how and the grown-up lawyer who says she can get things done.
At stake is another four years under the well-funded Wolf, who won a first term in 2014 by making Republican Gov. Tom Corbett the first governor of Pennsylvania to go down in defeat since Pennsylvania in the 1970s began allowing governors to serve a second term.
Independent polling in the three-way race is sparse.
Scott Wagner, a York County state senator since 2014, has long been viewed the front runner. He is the state party’s endorsed candidate, and he has used the millions he made in the waste-hauling industry to spend the most in the race — more than $12 million and counting.
The Republican Party has endorsed in every gubernatorial primary since 1978, and in every case that endorsed candidate won the party nomination.
Wagner, who announced his candidacy in early 2017, rails consistently at state government’s inefficiencies and public-sector unions. In the Senate, he rolled up one of the most conservative voting records and has transformed his reputation of party gate-crasher into that of party bedrock. He has become one of the party’s most reliable campaign financiers, shoring up GOP committees and candidates with more than $370,000 in 2017 alone.
His opponents are first-time candidates from suburban Pittsburgh: former health care systems consultant Paul Mango, a former Army paratrooper, and commercial litigation attorney Laura Ellsworth, who has held prominent roles in the city’s civic and business organizations.
Wolf is seeking a second term in the November election and is uncontested in Tuesday’s primary.
Wagner at various points has claimed to be the race’s most conservative candidate. At another point, he said it’s not about being the most conservative, but about understanding the issues.
His final pitch to primary voters on TV is that he best understands regular people and how to protect their wallets from state government.
“I’m on a mission,” Wagner said in the race’s final televised debate.
In the same debate, Mango closed with, “I’m a former Ranger-qualified paratrooper, I’m a family man, I’m a trusted conservative, I’m a father and I’m a business leader.”
Ellsworth countered that she’s an outsider, beholden to no political machine and an experienced candidate of “civility, decency, and respect,” implicitly criticizing the negative ad-bashing between Mango and Wagner that consumed the campaign in March and April.
Wagner’s stances occasionally defy textbook conservatism. For instance, he supports an increase in the minimum wage. He occasionally deflects questions about solutions, saying that’s above his pay grade, and his penchant for speaking off-the-cuff makes him a magnet for controversy.
At one point, Wagner said he would pursue a mandatory death penalty for any school shooter who kills someone. Laws like that have been unconstitutional for decades, legal analysts say. At another, he said climate change is happening because “the earth moves closer to the sun every year.” It’s not, say physicists.
Mango has steadfastly maintained fiscally and socially conservative positions and sought to cement his credibility with an endorsement from former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.
While Ellsworth has made gestures to the moderate middle, she also takes core conservative positions on guns, abortion, Medicaid and schools.
All three have vowed fiscal conservatism, insisting they can somehow cut costs painlessly and balance the budget while cutting taxes and increasing spending for things like school safety, drug treatment or highway construction.
Should Republicans nominate Wagner, it would be a remarkable step in the party’s break with a tradition of backing establishment-style candidates.
The tea party-aligned Wagner became known for financing conservative anti-establishment primary challengers to sitting Republican lawmakers before he ran for state Senate in 2014, beating the GOP’s endorsed candidate in an ugly and expensive contest.
He continued publicly chastising fellow Republicans while in the Senate, often accusing them of being aligned with public-sector labor unions.
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