Potent attack ads hit the air waves in Pa. GOP governor’s race

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Republican candidates for governor of Pennsylvania (from left), Laura Ellsworth, Paul Mango, and Scott Wagner, participate in a debate at the National Constitution Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Republican candidates for governor of Pennsylvania (from left), Laura Ellsworth, Paul Mango, and Scott Wagner, participate in a debate at the National Constitution Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

With all the ads popping up on your television and your computer, there is no doubt that it’s election season. In November, Pennsylvanians will be electing a governor, a U.S. senator, and members of Congress, all running in new districts. There are state races as well.

The Pennsylvania primary is May 15, and Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn checked in with senior reporter Dave Davies to get the latest on some key races.

There are some hard-hitting ads attacking two Republican candidates for governor, Scott Wagner and Paul Mango. First of all, tell us a little bit about these two. 

They’re both wealthy businessmen, and each has pumped about $6 million into his own campaign. That’s why they can afford all these TV ads. Scott Wagner is from York County, and he proudly says he’s in the garbage business; grew up on a farm; and built his solid-waste company from scratch. He stormed into the Republican Party in 2014 by running against the party’s candidate in a special election for state Senate and winning as an independent write-in candidate. That’s just unheard of. And he’s gained a lot of influence in the party since by contributing money to other candidates and to Republican county organizations. So he has the party’s endorsement in the primary. That doesn’t always happen. He’s very plainspoken, kind of brash, often compared to Donald Trump.

What about Paul Mango?

He’s from Pittsburgh, and he’s a very successful health care consultant for the international firm McKinsey & Company. He’s very proud of the fact that he went to West Point and that his diploma was handed to him by Ronald Reagan. That’s a handy campaign picture to use. He’s also proud of the fact that he served in the 82nd Airborne Division of the Army. Both men are quite conservative.

You’re saying both are conservative. Where are they different? And what are they fighting about?

Well, they’re really fighting about who’s going to win. I mean Paul Mango went after Wagner, I think, because Wagner got on television first, he had the state party’s endorsement, and he might run away with the race. And Wagner responded. I think these were kind of manufactured policy differences, like did Wagner support a bill to put boys in girls’ bathrooms? This came from his support of an equal opportunity LGBT ordinance. Wagner says it’s nonsense.

Wagner called Mango an Obamacare lover. You can’t be that as a Republican. But then it got really personal. Here’s an ad from Mango attacking Wagner:

Meet slumlord Scott Wagner. Sued for renting apartments with termites, no heat, leaking water. Deadbeat Dad Wagner, hauled into court in order to pay $800,000 in back alimony and child support. 

Tough stuff. That reference to him being a deadbeat dad and being hauled into court for child support stems from a dispute in Wagner’s divorce about the size of his income. But, there’s no evidence that he actually ever missed a child support payment.

And that’s what led to the Wagner ad we’ve seen with his daughter. It’s in black and white, and she’s speaking directly into the camera. 

Right. This is his adult daughter Katharine responding to Mango:

Paul Mango is a disgrace. Mango is taking a decade-old dispute and twisting the truth. Mr. Mango, you’re not half the man my father is. Take down your disgusting ads and apologize. 

The state party chairman has said this kind of stuff will hurt the party. He’s particularly bothered by the Mango attack ad and asked them to tone it down. I don’t think that’s likely to happen. Mango did not take down the ad at Katharine Wagner’s request, and Mango’s people tell me that you can expect to see an ad portraying Wagner as a “violent unhinged individual” going back decades.

There’s a third candidate in the race, Laura Ellsworth, an attorney from Pittsburgh who is staying out of this.

A lot of that’s because she doesn’t have the personal wealth Wagner and Mango do to buy those TV ads. I asked her about all these millions going into attack ads, and she said that’s not how people want to pick the next governor:

I don’t think the governor’s office is for sale. I don’t think anybody wants it to go to the highest bidder. I think they want it to go to the person who shows the character and leadership and focus on the issues that impact real people. 

Like Mango and Wagner, Ellsworth is a fiscal conservative. She favors a restrictive abortion laws, but — unlike them — she favors some institutional changes such as creating a citizens commission to draw legislative lines to end gerrymandering. She likes term limits and wants campaign finance contribution limits, which currently don’t exist in Pennsylvania. If voters are really turned off by all this snarling between Wagner and Mango, it could help Ellsworth, but she’s going to need to have enough money to get a little better known. She says she’ll have some TV ads in the closing weeks.

On the Democratic side, Gov. Tom Wolf is unopposed seeking a second term.

Yes, and he has about a zillion dollars in his campaign fund ready for the fall. Actually, it’s $14 million, but it’s a lot of money.

That is a lot of money. We have some time left. There’s a development in the departure of Congressman Charlie Dent, a Republican. Some may remember him as a member of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus in D.C. He announced he would not seek re-election some time ago. 

Well, he has said he will not finish his term in that district which is centered in the Lehigh County. He is going to leave office in May, which will require a special election to replace him. As you know, the Supreme Court redrew all of the electoral boundaries, so the special election will occur in a different geographical district than the new district. And you could have a circumstance where a Republican who lives in both — and both Republican candidates for the new district do live in both of these overlapping districts — could win the special election and be an incumbent congressman for a few months while seeking to win the new district. It may be a little confusing.

I’m a little confused. What’s Dent going to do next?

I had a thought that he might have been leaving early to give the Republican Party some advantage in the elections to replace him. But now, I think it’s for his own personal reasons that will eventually become clear.

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