Will Donald Trump’s success in Pennsylvania inspire copy-cat campaigns for governor? Looks like we already have one.
If you haven’t heard of state Sen. Scott Wagner yet, trust me, you will.
He’s a wealthy waste-management entrepreneur who beat the Republican establishment to get into office, and he’s already said he’ll run for governor in 2018.
Wagner was for years a conservative outsider in York County, criticizing mainstream Republicans as soft on conservative principles and beholden to special interests.
He’d often finance the campaigns of conservative challengers to GOP incumbents, not the kind of thing that endears you to party leaders.
Two years ago, Wagner ran against the party-backed candidate in a special election and won his seat with write-in votes, a stunning achievement not unlike Trump beating a Republican presidential field stocked with establishment candidates.
Wagner’s win put the outsider on the inside in Harrisburg, and party leaders soon learned he wouldn’t be a quiet member of the Senate caucus.
“I’m going to be sitting in the back room with a baseball bat, and leadership’s going to start doing things for Pennsylvania that needs done,” Wagner said in a November 2014 appearance on Dom Giordano’s radio show.
Wagner had an impact soon enough.
He was part of a group that ousted Delaware County Sen. Dominic Pileggi, a moderate, from the post of majority leader, replacing him with Jake Corman of Centre County, who’s more conservative.
But Wagner spent plenty of his own money to support Republican candidates, and he’s now an accepted leader of the party.
I saw him in July, when was a featured speaker at a caucus of the Pennsylvania delegation at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
“Let me tell ya, I’m in the garbage business,” he said, “and I am probably the most competitive person in the world.”
It’s interesting that he made his fortune in the solid-waste industry in York County, where Gov. Tom Wolf ran his family’s business.
Wagner showed his competitive mettle this year when he chaired the Pennsylvania Senate Republican Campaign Committee. The party won four competitive seats and captured a super-majority in the Senate, a 34-16 margin over Democrats.
Wagner didn’t just lead. Joe Aronson, director of the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, said Wagner invested personally, especially in knocking off first-term Erie Democrat Sean Wiley.
“Between his own personal funds and the political action committees he controls, he put over a half a million dollars into that race,” Aronson said.
When I took a look at the campaign finance reports filed so far this year (post-election reports aren’t due till December), I tallied $668,000 in Wagner contributions to Republican candidates and party committees. That’s just through Oct. 24, a full two weeks before the election.
The next race
Wagner didn’t return my calls, but he’s said more than once he identifies with Trump as a businessman who wants to shake things up.
He’s said he’ll formally announce his run for governor in January, and that he’ll write a seven-figure check to his own campaign fund.
Can he pull it off? First, he has to win a Republican primary.
I called Gloria Lee Snover, chair of the Northampton County Republican Party, an early and avid Trump supporter.
She said she likes Wagner’s business background and no-nonsense approach, but wonders whether he’s likable enough to win. Maybe, she said. She’s just not sure.
“However,” she added, “I think there’s going to be other businessmen who run as well. I think you’re going to see several mini-Donald Trumps come out in this race.”
Snover said she’s already been approached by one she won’t name.
Franklin & Marshall professor Stephen Medvic made an interesting point — that Wagner’s success might depend on how the Trump presidency is regarded. If Trump does well, more voters might be willing to go for a businessman with little government experience.
On the other hand, he said, “If the first year is really rocky for Donald Trump, people may say, ‘Well, another person who’s successful in business but doesn’t have a lot of government experience, who’s burned some bridges and made some enemies, maybe that’s not the way to go.'”
There are many other potential Republican candidates, including Senate Majority leader Corman, House Speaker Mike Turzai, and western Pennsylvania Congressman Mike Kelly.
Snover said she thinks it could be a crowded field, and she’d like to see one of them “take a leap of faith” and instead challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, who’s also up for re-election in 2018.