‘Jeopardy!’ host plays monopoly during first — and only — Pa. gubernatorial debate

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Republican Scott Wagner (left) has vowed to stomp on the face of Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, in the increasingly vitriolic Pennsylvania gubernatorial campaign. A Wagner campaign spokesman says the threat was metaphorical. (AP file photos)

Republican Scott Wagner (left) has vowed to stomp on the face of Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, in the increasingly vitriolic Pennsylvania gubernatorial campaign. A Wagner campaign spokesman says the threat was metaphorical. (AP file photos)

Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn had a chance to chat with WHYY senior reporter Dave Davies about the midterm elections in Pennsylvania.

The first topic was this week’s debate between Gov. Tom Wolf, the Democratic incumbent, and Republican challenger Scott Wagner. It brought Hollywood to Hershey in the form of Alex Trebek who served as moderator.

Dave, we have a governor’s race in Pennsylvania and the only debate of the campaign occurred Monday moderated by, of all people, Alex Trebek, host of  “Jeopardy!” How did he do?

Pretty badly, bad enough to merit a story in The Washington Post about it. It was just kind of weird. Here’s an example. For his very first question he noted that Wolf had gotten applause in the past when he said the words, “Fly, Eagles, fly.”

Trebek: And that started me thinking. So, please sir, tell me the name of the starting defensive lineman for the Eagles who has won two consecutive Super Bowls each one with a different team.

Yeah, the governor didn’t know the answer, and people weren’t quite sure what was going on. Trebek’s questions were long and meandering and filled with personal opinions and anecdotes. I did a little tally — of the first 21 minutes of the debate, Trebek was holding forth for more than eight minutes more than a third of the time. He didn’t leave a lot of time for the candidates.

Wagner was more aggressive. He got the lion’s share of the floor.

Well, it seemed like a real lost opportunity. Could there be another debate?

There could be, but there won’t. Because Wolf is breaking with a long tradition and has agreed to only a single debate. This is sometimes common among front-runners. He has a lead in the polls. They don’t want to give their opponents more exposure.

But after this disappointing event, we at WHYY did reach out to the governor’s campaign and see if he’d be interested in sponsoring a debate. We got a very quick reply. Nothing has changed. Wolf will not be doing any other debates.

It’s kind of a shame because there are real issues here, and these candidates have distinctly different views and records on school funding, the role of government, and other policy issues that you don’t really get a good sense of from TV commercials.

We have been following Wagner’s campaign, of course, and he’s from York County. He’s the Republican. He’s been setting up a campaign office in Philadelphia and pitching to Philadelphians including African-American voters.

Yeah, he has a commercial that was shot in West Philadelphia where he speaks with a lot of African-American voters, and last weekend he opened a Democrats for Wagner office in Center City. I went to the opening, and I recognized a man who was there who was in the commercial.

He is Tracey L. Fisher, the founder of Democrats for Wagner, who told me he’s been a Democrat all his life, but that Gov. Wolf has let his community down.

Fisher: He himself knows we’re No. 1 in poverty. He himself knows schools are falling down. He himself knows the urban community is being neglected. Homelessness, lack of education, lack of finances. All these abandoned houses.

So he’s clearly passionate about this. But there’s a little backstory here. Mr. Fisher runs a nonprofit organization in Southwest Philadelphia. And I wrote a story last November about the fact that Scott Wagner bought two brand new vans for that group to use in its work. So, Mr. Fisher may have more than one reason to support Mr. Wagner.

Does Wagner really expect to get votes in Philadelphia?

Well, he says he can move the needle here … and maybe he can a bit. One thing I’ve heard over the years from political consultants is that when you see a conservative Republican making a public appeal to black voters, it’s often really aimed at moderate white voters, particularly in the suburbs.

Remember, they will see these commercials too in this market to reassure them that the candidate is not a racist. It is OK to vote for him.

We also have a U.S. Senate race. Democratic incumbent Bob Casey is challenged by Republican Congressman Lou Barletta. There are a lot of TV ads out there. And one clearly depicts Sen. Casey as the bipartisan candidate.

Right. He’s running that a lot. It begins with a couple sitting on their front porch speaking into the camera.

I’m a Democrat. He’s a Republican.

It has its ups and downs, believe me.

Amen.

So we admire how Bob Casey works with both sides.

And the couple goes on to say that Casey works across the aisle. At the end, the camera shot widens, and Casey is seated with the couple on the porch.

That’s right. Republicans and Democrats really can work together.

Sometimes.

I’m Bob Casey, and all three of us approved this message.

It’s cute. And what’s really going on here is that Casey, who since the election of Donald Trump, has been a very vocal critic. He joined protesters at the airport of the immigration policies. He’s reassuring voters that he is the same moderate Bobby Casey you’ve always known.

Well, how does that race look?

In this race, as in the governor’s race, the Democrats have a big lead in the polls and a lot more money. And national Republican groups are not putting a lot of money into those races, which is an indication they don’t think they’re so terribly competitive.

I had a conversation with John Brabender, who’s a well-known Republican consultant.  He said yes, but remember 2016 when Hillary Clinton led the whole way, and people could see something was happening across the state. He thinks it might happen again, and Republicans can make some noise on Nov. 6.

OK, what about congressional races in the region?

Well, this is something we’re going to talk a lot more about in future conversations. But there are competitive races in our region and across the commonwealth. And Democrats who started the year with just five of the state’s 18 congressional seats think they can pick up at least two more, maybe five, maybe more. So they’re optimistic.

I will say Republicans are saying that the [U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett] Kavanaugh controversy has galvanized their support, and they’re feeling a little better about their chances. We’ll see.

You can hear senior reporter Dave Davies on the radio and online at WHYY.org. And now you can subscribe to his weekly email newsletter “Campaign Countdown.”

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