Halfway through term, Pa. Gov. Wolf has GOP challenger

Pennsylvania Senator Scott Wagner speaks during the Northeast Republican Leadership Conference in the Sheraton Hotel in Philadelphia, Pa. on Saturday, June 20, 2015

HARRISBURG - Democratic Gov. Wolf is barely midway through his first term, but he already faces a challenger for his job: a fiscally conservative state senator and a wealthy businessman from his own backyard.

Sen. Scott Wagner, a Republican from York, this week made it publicly official - if not formally so - that he intends to run for governor in 2018.

"I'm not going to hide, I'm running," Wagner, 61, said Friday, adding that he intends to make a formal announcement early next year.

The Fox station in Harrisburg, WPMT, was the first to report Wagner's plans, although he has been signaling his interest for months.

A self-described Capitol outsider and fierce supporter of President-elect Donald Trump, Wagner decided to run because, he said, he thinks he has the business smarts and the political relationships to do the job better.

"I don't have a choice - when I see something wrong, and I know I can get in there and fix it, that's what I'm going to do," said Wagner, president of a trash-removal and recycling company in central Pennsylvania.

Harrisburg, he said, is paralyzed by inaction on important issues, and he blames a lack of leadership by Wolf.

In a statement, Wolf countered that he has been able to work with the Republican-dominated legislature to push through major policy initiatives, including more money for public schools, breaking the state-run monopoly on the sale of wine, and legalizing medical marijuana.

"Gov. Wolf knows now is not the time for politics, but instead the moment to continue these efforts," said his spokesman, Jeff Sheridan.

For his part, Wagner said he's always seen a clear, if not necessarily easy, path to the governor's office. To start, Wagner could face a potentially crowded Republican field, as other prominent GOP officials - including House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman - have been floated as possible candidates.

And beating Wolf, who like Wagner is a wealthy businessman from York County who can largely self-finance his campaign, will be a difficult task.

But Wagner is emboldened by how Trump won Pennsylvania by turning a once-sacred political truth on its head: You can win a statewide race even if you are trounced in Philadelphia and its suburbs.

"The Trump movement proves that people are fed up," he said.

Wagner made an unlikely entrance to the state Senate: He ran as a write-in candidate, winning a March 2014 special election without the support of major state Republican Party players. That November, he was elected to serve a full four-year term.

No sooner had he arrived in the Capitol than he was given a plum position: running the Senate Republican campaign committee for the 2015-16 cycle, a position that gave him a prominent seat at the table in choosing candidates and propping up their campaigns with cash.

He delivered. Republicans on Tuesday grew their majority in the Senate from 31 to 34 seats in the 50-seat chamber - their largest majority since the 1949-50 legislative session.

Wagner advocates smaller government and limiting spending, and has said that public-sector unions have too much influence in Harrisburg.

At the same time, he has struck more moderate stances on some fiscal and social issues, proposing raising the minimum wage - although not by as much as Democrats would like - and supporting antidiscrimination protections for LGBT residents.

His sometimes brash style - he once threatened to carry a baseball bat to ensure his Republican colleagues voted in line with him - combined with his access to campaign money, has made him a swiftly rising force in state Republican circles.

He can be outspoken and plainspoken. In September 2014, Wagner wrote to then-Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi saying he had concluded that Pileggi obstructed the legislative process and should no longer lead Senate Republicans. That November, the caucus replaced Pileggi with Corman.

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