Wagner jumps in, shaking up Pa. gubernatorial field

     Jack Wagner (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

    Jack Wagner (Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo)

    Holy smokes. Just when we thought he’d forgotten all about it, former Pennsylvania Auditor General Jack Wagner has decided he wants to run for governor after all.

    Wagner will be the eighth announced Democratic candidate in the scrum for the party’s nomination May 20.

    And while he’s late, very late, getting in, he changes the race.

    Wagner isn’t a household name in my part of the state. But, in Pittsburgh, he’s run for or held just about every elective office you can think of. He was a city council member, council president, and state senator before serving two terms as state auditor general. He ran and lost for lieutenant governor (2002), governor (2010), and mayor of Pittsburgh (last year).

    He becomes a serious player in the Democratic governor’s race for one reason: he’s the only candidate in the western half of the state. If the five or so competitive candidates who come from the east whack up their base and Wagner sweeps the west, he could win.

    In a short phone interview, I asked why he was so late coming to the party.

    “I’m getting in late, but I’m not getting in too late,” Wagner said. “The average citizen has not focused on the governor’s race.” He said personal considerations caused him to hesitate, but that with the crowded Democratic field, it’s still winnable.

    The $5 million entrance fee

    But Wagner won’t win, even with his geographical edge, unless he raises enough money for a serious TV and radio campaign, according to Franklin & Marshall political analyst Terry Madonna.

    “You need $5 million to get into this race. That’s the entrance fee,” Madonna said. “You’ll need $10 million to $15 million to be a closer. That’s how much it’s going to cost.”

    Others I spoke with thought Wagner could manage with a little less cash, since he woudn’t necessarily have to advertise in the Philadelphia market. But all agreed he’ll need millions.

    Wagner has historically had trouble raising enough money. One operative I spoke to said,  “Jack likes to campaign like it’s the 1950s, shaking hands downtown and buying a couple of newspaper supplements.” That’s a losing formula in the modern world, where candidates spend a lot of time making fundraising calls so they can buy a media blitz at the right moment.

    Wagner told me he won’t have the money to match York businessman Tom Wolf, who’s put $10 million into his own race, but “I certainly hope I’ll be able to raise a sufficient amount of money to be competitive.”

    I checked, and Wagner has about $31,000 in his campaign fund. The primary is three months from today.

    I also hear that there are a number of Pittsburgh politicians, including Mayor Bill Peduto, who have no love for Wagner and will actively help another candidate just to sink Jack. 

    And I wonder if people will vote for someone who it seems decided to run for governor because the opportunity was there, rather than out of a burning conviction. Wagner told me voters will want someone who’s trusted and tested, and that’s him.

    Who does he hurt?

    If Wagner isn’t able to muster a winning campaign, the question is which of the other seven Democrats in the contest does he hurt?

    Well, he’s a another white guy in the mix, and he’s a moderate anti-abortion Democrat. U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz’s base is probably the farthest from Wagner’s, while Wolf and State Treasurer Rob McCord were probably looking to capture some of the voters Wagner will compete for.

    It will be interesting to see what kind of gear Wagner can get his campaign into, whether he brings it east of the Susquehanna river, and how the others in the field adjust.

    At 66, Jack is back.

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