You can pretty much tell the state of a race by how contenders handle debates.
That said, now that the GOP primary for governor is down to three, after (he-never-was-going-to-run) House Speaker Mike Turzai dropped out, there’s a noticeable shift in the winds.
While Republicans almost always agree on basics — abortion, guns, less government, school choice, etc. — we’re now seeing efforts at separation. At least in tone, presentation, and for what passes in politics as nuance.
Firebrand populist state Sen. Scott Wagner, the party-endorsed front-runner with the work ethic of a jackhammer, is pushing to further separate himself from fellow contenders as a Donald Trump outsider, an angry agent of change.
“I’ve never seen a candidate work so hard for so long,” GOP state chairman Val DiGiorgio tells me.
Pittsburgh’s Paul Mango, former health-care consultant for global mega-corp McKinsey & Co., aggressively paints his West Point self as further right than Wagner, especially on social issues, an appeal to many GOP voters.
And uber-lawyer Laura Ellsworth, also of Pittsburgh and international law firm Jones Day, seeks to offer non-pandering, sensible views. So, naturally, you figure she’s got no chance. Unless as an alternative to testosterone wars waged between the two others.
A debate last Thursday in Harrisburg featured all these efforts center stage.
Wagner hugged Trump. Said he supported Trump “from day one.” Said he expects Trump to campaign for him this year. “People want change,” Wagner said.
Mango portrayed himself as the race’s most conservative candidate, and twice called Wagner “a dangerous, ineffective liberal insider just as Tom Wolf is.”
(A twofer. Hits an immediate opponent plus one you hope to have. It’s double-barreled bombast.)
Wagner, by the way, responded by giving Mango a Trump-type nickname, “Lyin’ Paul,” evoking Trump’s 2016 primary taunt of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz as “Lyin’ Ted,” because, hey, it worked once.
Ellsworth, meanwhile, said people want civility and action, not just talk.
She said voters want pols to “focus on getting things done for them, not for us … without all of the name-calling and shouting and yelling and finger-pointing and characterization that gets in the way of smart, intelligent governing.”
In the separation game, Ellsworth stood out.
She said she’d take no money from the NRA. Wagner and Mango said they would.
She advocated for a citizens commission to draw political maps. Mango and Wagner indicated they’re fine with the process that gave us maps now ruled unconstitutional due to partisan gerrymandering.
When Mango and Wagner called for elimination of property taxes, Ellsworth said such calls are “telling you what you want to hear.” Elimination, she said, endangers school funding. She would freeze property taxes for seniors and longtime homeowners.
Here’s a sample of current thinking on the race.
Former GOP state committee chief Alan Novak: “I think Mango has hit the radar now. He’s still behind. But Wagner probably hasn’t closed the deal yet.”
Terry Madonna, director, Franklin and Marshall College Center for Politics: “We’re at a juncture where we’re going to see a lot more of candidate separation. The gloves aren’t completely off. But stay tuned.”
GOP strategist Charlie Gerow: “These candidates are looking to define themselves and distinguish themselves. Mango is clearly energized to go after Wagner, and Ellsworth is getting her footing.”
Chris Borick, director, Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion: “In the political moment of #MeToo, Ellsworth isn’t making her gender the defining aspect of her campaign but makes clear it’s part of the package. That could make voters think, given our history of women being unsuccessful in politics, that this is a particularly good time for a woman on the top of the ticket in Pennsylvania.”
The race is Wagner’s to lose. But Mango has shed some of his stiffness, and seems increasingly prepared and focused. And Ellsworth is fighting, at this stage, to be more than a spoiler, taking votes from Wagner and Mango (though mostly Mango) in a contest that could end up close.
Still. Looking at matchups with Wolf? I bet the candidate whom team Wolf would least like to face in November is Ellsworth.
Want more? There’s a debate Tuesday morning at the Constitution Center. PCN plans to air it Tuesday at 6 p.m.