Wagner: Too Trumpish for Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania state Sen. Scott Wagner, who is running for the GOP gubernatorial nomination next year, has been urging fellow Republicans not to support a natural gas severance tax — in part because he thinks it would help Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf politically. (AP file photo)

Pennsylvania state Sen. Scott Wagner (AP, file)

Pennsylvania Republicans anxious to retake the governor’s office next year are wondering: Can a Trump-like candidate win the general election?

They seem to have one.

State Sen. Scott Wagner of York County is a rich, plainspoken businessman who barreled his way into office despite opposition from mainstream Republicans.

If that reminds you of Donald Trump, you aren’t alone. Wagner has supported Trump, and he is seen as a Trump-like candidate for governor. He’s been publicly praised by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

That looked like a good thing a year ago, when Trump stunned Democrats by winning the state.

But last week’s election results are giving a lot of Republicans, especially in Southeast Pennsylvania, a knot in the stomach.

Democrats made historic gains in local offices in Delaware, Bucks, and Chester counties, and there’s little doubt that anti-Trump energy was a big reason.

Franklin and Marshall government professor Steven Medvic said Wagner’s association with Trump may be fine with a lot of core Republicans, but it’s a risky approach for the general election.

“It’s already not playing well, the results this week suggest,” Medvic said. “By next fall it’s not likely to be playing very well at all.”

Putting some distance?

Wagner was asked about this Thursday when he introduced his new running mate, businessman Jeff Bartos.

Wagner said he’s not a clone of the president.

“Donald Trump grew up in the New York real estate world. I grew up on a farm in York, Pennsylvania,” Wagner said, adding that he started his first trash-hauling business driving the truck himself. “I’m a blue-collar guy.”

He didn’t criticize Trump, but he said he has his own style — and noted he has more experience in Harrisburg than Trump did when he came to Washington.

“When I’m sworn into the governor’s office, I will have almost four and a half years inside the Capitol,” Wagner said.

Wagner did say he’d be happy to have Trump campaign for him in Pennsylvania.

When I asked the campaign if they’d like to talk about the Trump issue, Bartos called.

“I really think Scott is known as Scott,” Bartos said. “He’s not a politician. He doesn’t speak from a teleprompter. He speaks from the heart.”

He said people will judge him on his own, and they will like what they see.

The other side

Not everyone thinks last week’s election was a repudiation of Trump in Pennsylvania.

State GOP chairman Val DiGiorgio told me that while the Democrats romped in southeastern Pennsylvania, Republicans did well elsewhere, nearly capturing the mayor’s office in Democratically dominated Erie, and performing well in Scranton and places in southwestern Pennsylvania.

DiGiorgio wasn’t endorsing Wagner. As state chairman, he said it’s his job “to keep a level playing field and keep the candidates focused on attacking Tom Wolf and [Democratic U.S. Sen.] Bob Casey rather than each other.”

He said he hoped the state party would eventually endorse a candidate and trim the field of contenders.

A lively Republican gubernatorial primary is shaping up.

Businessman Paul Mango and attorney Laura Ellsworth, both from Pittsburgh, are running.

State House Speaker Mike Turzai may still enter the race. One source told me he might announce next week, but he’s made and changed his plans before.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal