Amid Trump-initiated turbulence in the Pa. governor race, Dave White makes his move

Dave White speaks from a podium during a debate

Dave White speaks during a debate with other Republican Party candidates seeking to win the party nomination in the 2022 election for Pennsylvania governor. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Going into the Republican primary for Pennsylvania governor, one of Dave White’s goals was “peaking at the right time.”

The former union steamfitter and Delaware County Council member, who owns a profitable HVAC company, has been self-funding his way to a respectable standing in polling of the crowded race. Most surveys have had him in third or fourth place in the field of nine, behind better-known politicians like State Sen. Doug Mastriano and former congressman Lou Barletta, and jockeying with former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain.

But after a tumultuous period that saw McSwain suffer an anti-endorsement from Donald Trump, White saw an opening.

He began running an ad prominently quoting Trump’s exhortation that voters not support McSwain. It reminded viewers of retiring GOP Pa. Senator Pat Toomey’s vote to impeach Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection, and called McSwain Toomey’s “puppet” for not investigating baseless election fraud allegations while he was U.S. Attorney — though McSwain did try to convince Trump, early in the campaign, that he had tried to investigate.

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Christopher Nicholas, a GOP consultant not affiliated with any of the candidates, said he’s not sure if White automatically benefits from Trump trashing McSwain. But, he added, “it’s obvious that Dave White thinks he can benefit … obviously, his internal research and their own thinking shows that they believe they have a chance to move.”

Stephen Medvic, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall college who is watching the race closely, notes that White’s relative stability in the race to this point has been largely due to his ability to fund ads. This recent move, Medvic said, could pay off.

“I think his ads — leaving aside accuracy or whatever you might want to say about the content of the ads — they’re effective,” he said. “I think his message probably resonates with the base of the Republican Party.”

To date, White has dumped $4 million of his own money into his campaign — more self-funding than any other candidate in the race. He has raised another million and change on top of that, with big donations coming from private sector unions — the Steamfitters Local 420 in Philadelphia, for instance, gave $100,000 — and from a PAC run by candy company owner and longtime Pennsylvania GOP power broker Bob Asher.

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His latest campaign filings show he has put more than $3.5 million of that into ads — a number no candidate has been able to rival, except McSwain.

McSwain has had less money flow through his campaign account than White, but he is backed by a conservative PAC promoting a free market economy, Commonwealth Leaders Fund. That PAC, which is largely funded by billionaire school choice advocate Jeff Yass, threw its support behind McSwain in January and has since spent nearly $6 million on ads and other material supporting him.

All those ads have been necessary for McSwain and White. They have significantly less name recognition than Barletta, who has been in Pennsylvania politics for decades and ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2018, and Mastriano, who has become a celebrity in right wing circles for championing Trump’s false election fraud claims.

Neither of the front-runners has as much in the bank as White or McSwain, and both have mostly stayed off TV while their opponents have dumped millions into ads. Barletta has brought in about $1.3 million in donations overall, and Mastriano, about $1.4 million.

Barletta does appear to be stepping up his campaigning in the primary’s home stretch. He recently won the support of a PAC, the 1776 Project Committee, that has principally been attacking McSwain as — like White said in his ad — Toomey’s “puppet.” Barletta has also begun running his first TV ad.

Medvic thinks up to this point, the challenge for all these candidates has been differentiation. Every one of the four highest-polling candidates has allied himself strongly with Trump, and there have been few significant policy differences between them.

Trump’s anti-endorsement of McSwain, he said, is one “big piece of information that, even if it only really convinces a relative handful of people to no longer support McSwain, that knocks him back pretty far,” he said.

McSwain has recently attempted to similarly tarnish White in certain voters’ eyes, releasing a statement noting White’s considerable support from unions and saying that “liberal Democrats have flocked to Dave White because he reflects their values – bigger government and higher taxes.”

White maintains, however, that his labor background is a positive. In fact, he argues it’s the very thing that sets him apart.

In an interview with WHYY, he said the idea that “we don’t want a certain set of voters is almost laughable,” and noted that in 2020, many rank-and-file members of the traditionally Democratic building trades supported Donald Trump.

“The rank and file are coming over to our party. I’m just bringing them over in bigger numbers, and some of the leadership as well,” he said. “That’s what differentiates me from the other candidates, is that I’m the only one that’s capable of doing that.”

Asher, the longtime GOP operative who has supported White since the start of his campaign, agreed. Especially considering Republicans’ perennial registration lag behind Democrats, he said, White’s potential labor appeal “brings strength to the Republican party.”

Medvic said that’s possible. But, he added, this remains a highly unstable race. Maybe McSwain support will waver, or maybe it won’t. Maybe Barletta’s new ad buys will move the needle, or maybe not.

“It’s still a pretty open ballgame,” he said. “There are a lot of undecided voters.”

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