Why Pennsylvania's race for governor is so harsh so early | John Baer

Democratic Gov. Wolf, left, is coming at Republican state Sen. Scott Wagner early in the the state’s race for governor. .

The day after Scott Wagner won the May 15 GOP gubernatorial primary, Gov. Wolf’s campaign released a two-minute digital ad: “Worst of Harrisburg Wagner.”

The title, I’m pretty sure, seeks to tag Wagner, a multimillionaire trash magnate and state senator, as “Harrisburg Wagner,” meaning he represents horrible things, and here are his worst moments.

Otherwise, it says Wagner’s the worst of Harrisburg, which would unfairly single him out in a legion of demons. Surely, Wolf wouldn’t want to be unfair.

But either way, the spot offers clips of Wagner at his supposed worst, including sounding like a male Sybil, claiming he has three personalities: John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Rambo – interestingly, a deceased actor, an 87-year old actor/director, and a fictional film character.

OK, he’s a tough guy. Or, he’s a psycho. Something to ponder.

There’s also a clip of Wagner’s famous run-in with a political tracker last year during which he grabs the tracker’s camera as the tracker says, “You’re assaulting me.”

Again, eyebrows and questions might reasonably be raised.

And there’s also a clip in which Wagner appears overtly homicidal. He’s talking about wrapping his hands around somebody’s neck and choking them.

Scary, right?

Except it’s from a broadcast interview in 2011, three years before Wagner ran for office. A fuller version of it, provided by Wagner’s campaign, shows Wagner was speaking (as president of his trash firm, Penn Waste) about government regulations choking business.

So, you know, a deceptive reach by the Wolfites.

Wolf’s campaign also has a website (worstofharrisburgwagner.com) dedicated to hammering Wagner and offering other digital ads.

One features Wagner saying Pennsylvania could lay off 10 percent of its public school teachers and “never miss them.” Another has Wagner saying Wolf’s 2015 expansion of Medicaid should be rolled back.

Fair game. Wagner said those things, believes those things.

And, look, the Republican Governors Association was at it the day after the primary, too. It put up a (thrown together) 14-second digital spot trashing Wolf for pushing for taxes as he “let the economy stall.”

Digital attacks are common. Often nasty and mostly lame. And usually used by underdogs.

So, why’s Wolf using them?

Wolf’s camp criticized attack ads in the GOP primary. Few folks consider Wolf an underdog. And Wolf, while running anti-Wagner digital ads, put up a Mr. Rogers-style TV ad: Wolf in a sweater speaking softly about moving the state forward.

It’s the political equivalent of good cop/bad cop.

But I’d note that Wolf’s anti-Wagner ads are highly produced for the digital market, suggesting you’ll see parts of them in later TV ads.

They also serve an immediate purpose.

Democratic campaign consultant Ken Snyder, who is not involved in Wolf’s campaign, says, “The negative themes they’re unveiling probably proved devastating when Wolf’s team tested them out, and they want to throw some banana peels at Wagner before he can gain traction.”

And Republican campaign consultant Christopher Nicholas, who’s not involved in Wagner’s campaign, tells me the ads have specific targets: “Look in the mirror. You and yours (the media) are the target.”

There are other targets, too.

Such ads will show up on Facebook and Twitter accounts based on individuals’ interests. And they are signals to ad makers for independent groups that can’t legally coordinate with campaigns. Lower-budget digital ads tell big-money folks this is where to hit our opponent.

Wolf’s spots against Wagner are (for now) not as vicious as those thrown at him by primary opponent Paul Mango, calling Wagner “sleazy” and “a deadbeat dad.”

But Wolf’s clear intent is to paint Wagner as less than stable and given to violence, at least in rhetoric if not in action – not unlike another GOP pol we’ve come to know.

And Wolf isn’t backing down. When I raise the question of using the “choking” video out of context, Wolf campaign communications director Beth Melena says, “Nothing is out of context. Like the guy in the White House, Scott Wagner only says things that are destructive rather than constructive.”

And so we’re off. Another campaign framed in the context of “the guy in the White House.” No surprise it’s harsh so early.