HARRISBURG — A Republican state senator and trash hauling magnate whose style and substance often draws comparisons to President Trump snagged the chance to challenge Gov. Wolf this fall for the state’s top job.
Sen. Scott Wagner of York County won Tuesday’s primary fight for the Republican nomination for governor, edging out former health-care consultant Paul Mango and Pittsburgh lawyer Laura Ellsworth in what had shaped up to be an expensive and bruising race.
Tuesday’s outcome sets the stage for a showdown in the fall between two millionaires from the Central Pennsylvania town of York: a mild-mannered governor with an Ivy League pedigree and an unabashedly progressive agenda; and the sometimes brash and unpredictable Wagner, who has made slashing taxes and government regulations a cornerstone of his campaign.
“This governor, Tom Wolf, has been nothing short of a disappointment for anyone who isn’t filling up his campaign coffers,” Wagner said in his victory speech Tuesday night, setting the tone for the coming fight.
As the crowd whooped and cheered, he added: “Help is on the way.”
Wolf’s campaign, in a statement, was quick to fire back, calling Wagner “the very worst of Harrisburg.”
Political analysts say a Wolf-Wagner match-up could rank in the state’s fund-raising book of records. In the primary alone, Wagner spent more than $12 million — including $3.3 million of his own money — and had $2.2 million more on hand at the end of April.
Wolf, who was unopposed Tuesday, already has more than $14 million in his campaign bank account, and that number is expected to grow swiftly now that the primary is over. The 2014 race for governor topped a record-smashing $82 million in spending between the primary and the general elections.
As in 2014, the political stakes are high.
Wolf is seeking to avoid the fate of his Republican predecessor, Tom Corbett, who became the first governor in modern Pennsylvania history to lose a bid for reelection. And Wolf’s first term has had its share of difficult moments, including the historic budget impasse with the Republican-controlled legislature in his first year in office, making him vulnerable to attacks on his governing style and substance.
Wagner too, has been no stranger to criticism.
In the closing months of the primary, Wagner, who was a landlord and a bail bondsman during his career, was attacked in a television ad by Mango’s campaign for being a slumlord, a polluter, a “sleazy” bail bondsman, and a bad father — allegations that Wagner said were a sign of Mango’s desperate campaign.
Wagner, who founded York-based Penn Waste Inc. in 2000, has also been singled out for his unwillingness to divest from his businesses — which are regulated by the state — or place them in a blind trust if he were to become governor.
Still, the Republican senator has also been alternately mocked and cheered on for his brash style, which once landed him in a highly publicized dispute with a political operative tracking his campaign.
Wagner, who won the endorsement of the state GOP, has said he wants to focus on reining in government spending and scaling back what he believes are overly burdensome government regulations that hamper business and economic development. Touting his experience running trash and trucking operations, he has frequently discussed the concept of “zero-based budgeting,” the idea that government, like a business, must justify the need for every expense.
On some social issues, Wagner has been more moderate. Although he has voted for further abortion restrictions and said he would reverse Wolf’s moratorium on executions, he has also bucked many in his party to advocate for a bump in the state’s minimum wage (albeit far smaller than what most Democrats, including Wolf, want) and to support legislation to extend the state’s anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing to the LGBT community.
Wolf is expected to run on his track record of working — albeit with bumps along the way — with a Republican-controlled legislature to increase funding for public education, legalize medical marijuana, relax the state’s onetime monopoly on the sale of wine, and change pension benefits for future state and public school employees. He instituted a gift ban for members of his administration, began posting his cabinet’s expenses online, and has been one of the Capitol’s most vocal supporters of the #metoo movement.
In their concession speeches last night both Mango and Ellsworth urged Republicans to rally behind Wagner.
“The most important goal is to defeat Tom Wolf,” Mango told his supporters.
Said Ellsworth: “We set out nine months ago now to bring a different kind of voice to politics, to focus on people, not politics, to take on all of the forces of the machine and everything else that is out there, and add to the civility and decency. And I’m proud to stand before you tonight and say we did exactly what we set out to do.”
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporters Julian Routh and Gary Rotstein contributed to this article.