Spending millions on early TV ads, Republican rivals follow Gov. Tom Wolf's lead

Governor 2018-Pennsylvania
Seeking the Republican Party’s nomination to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s re-election bid, candidates, left to right, Paul Mango, Sen. Scott Wagner, Laura Ellsworth, and House Speaker Mike Turzai participate in a debate Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, in Pittsburgh.

One ad shows Paul Mango, a Republican candidate for governor, accepting his diploma from President Ronald Reagan at West Point and later jumping out of an airplane as a paratrooper in the Army.

Another ad, called “Tough,” shows Republican State Sen. Scott Wagner standing in front of a garbage facility he owns as he pledges to “put big government in the Dumpster.”

Either explicitly or implicitly, the ads, which have aired in Philadelphia and markets statewide, portray Gov. Wolf as a weak liberal who needs to let a real leader take charge in Harrisburg. But if the candidates are critical of Wolf’s politics, they owe a debt of gratitude to his campaign playbook: Advertise on TV early in the campaign.

Wagner, owner of a waste-hauling company in York County, and Mango, a retired Pittsburgh-area health-care consultant, have already spent nearly $2 million on television ads ahead of the May 15 GOP gubernatorial primary, according to data provided to the Inquirer and Daily News by a media buyer.

In a crowded four-candidate primary that also includes the speaker of the state House, Wagner and Mango are trying to replicate Wolf’s successful strategy in the 2014 Democratic primary. In that race, Wolf, a wealthy York County Democrat who had never held elected office, aired his first ad in late January and introduced himself as a likable guy who drove an old Jeep.

He got on TV early and stayed there, unchallenged, for months — and also got a bit of help from a brutal cold spell that provided incentive for people to stay home. By the time Wolf’s rivals reached voters’ living rooms, he had already built an insurmountable lead in the polls. That helped him defeat relatively better-known candidates like then-U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz.

“It certainly proved to be an effective strategy for Gov. Wolf to get up early last time in a crowded field,” said Mike Barley, a Republican strategist who ran former Gov. Tom Corbett’s unsuccessful reelection campaign against Wolf in the 2014 general election.

He and other consultants cautioned that it’s not enough to be the first on TV. After all, voters tend to pay the most attention in the weeks leading up to the election.

“The last thing you want to do is get up on the airwaves and then not have enough to sustain your message,” Barley said, adding: “It looks like these folks have the resources to sustain that message for a long period of time.”

Heavy spending doesn’t ensure success, either. Across the river, New Jersey’s largest teachers’ union spent millions on TV ads blasting Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester) in last year’s general election. Buoyed by millions in outside spending on his own behalf, Sweeney crushed the union-backed Republican in November.

“It’s all about the grassroots in a Republican primary,” said Jeff Coleman, an adviser to House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny). Coleman said that at this stage, Turzai is running a “lean, frugal” ground operation — engaging with various factions like tea party and antiabortion groups — and would execute a media plan closer to when voters are making decisions.

A “conviction candidate” like Turzai doesn’t need to spend as much money as others, Coleman said, adding that a slew of debates scheduled in the coming months will create more opportunities for the candidates to gain exposure.

Wagner lent his campaign $4 million but has said he is also raising money from others. Mango is also spending some of his own money and soliciting contributions. His campaign had $5.5 million in the bank as of Dec. 31, a spokesman said.

The campaigns declined to comment on how much they have spent on advertising; they must file their annual reports with the state by the end of January.

But according to a media buyer, Mango has spent $820,000 on television ads since September. Wagner went up with his first ad in mid-December and has spent $880,000 since then.

That’s not a ton of money, considering that it can cost $1 million a week in Pennsylvania to air a statewide ad that “everyone’s going to see,” said J.J. Balaban, a Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant. Neither Wagner nor Mango is “going to be confused with Coca-Cola or McDonald’s,” Balaban said.

But Matt Beynon, a spokesman for Mango, said voters would “become very familiar” with seeing Mango on their television.

“Paul is the true outsider in this race,” he said. “That means he needs to be able to introduce himself.”

They may also be trying to impress the state Republican committee members who will meet in a few weeks to decide whether to endorse a candidate in the primary.

A spokeswoman for the state Democratic Party said the early spending wouldn’t make a difference in November, because voters would reject their conservative positions on issues like abortion and health care. Wolf began 2018 with $11 million in the bank.

To be sure, there are differences between Wolf’s 2014 campaign and this year’s GOP primary. He was the only independently wealthy candidate in the Democratic primary and donated $10 million to his campaign.

This time around, Wagner and Mango are already competing for voters’ attention. The electorate has also changed; for example, the Philadelphia area comprises a smaller slice of Republican primary voters than it does for Democrats.

Even so, the candidates are targeting the Philadelphia market, which is among the most expensive in the country.

None of the Republican candidates live in the southeast part of Pennsylvania. That means their name recognition among voters is low here — and that plenty of votes are up for grabs. Three of them — Turzai, Mango, and lawyer Laura Ellsworth — are from Allegheny County. Because the primary ballot lists the candidates’ home counties, they may split the vote from the western part of the state.

Philadelphia and its collar counties accounted for about 20 percent of the electorate in Pennsylvania’s last competitive Republican gubernatorial primary, in 2010.

That explains why Republicans are advertising in Democrat-rich Philadelphia. Mango is airing broadcast ads in the region; Wagner is on broadcast and cable, according to the media buyer.

“They’re not running Arlen Specter,” Balaban said, referring to the late Republican-turned-Democratic senator from Philadelphia. “There’s no one who owns these votes, I would assume.”