With less than five weeks to go before the Pennsylvania primary, the blistering attacks between Republican gubernatorial candidates Scott Wagner and Paul Mango are getting more intense and personal.
In the latest exchange, Wagner’s daughter Katharine speaks directly into the camera answering a Mango ad that calls Wagner a “deadbeat dad.”
“Paul Mango is a disgrace,” Katharine Wagner says in the ad. “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.”
Mango spokesman Matthew Beynon said the campaign will not take down the ad in question and stands by its content.
The “deadbeat dad” charge is included in a 30-second spot which makes a series of attacks on Wagner’s character. It says Wagner was “hauled into court and ordered to pay $800,000 in back alimony and child support.”
The charge dates back to Wagner’s 2008 divorce. His ex-wife’s attorneys charged that Wagner had understated his income, and a judge concluded he had. But there’s no evidence he’d missed a child support payment.
That case didn’t involve Katharine Wagner, and Beynon said the ad did not refer her in any way.
“Our reference was to a different daughter,” Beynon said.
Wagner has served in Pennsylvania’s Senate since 2014, but he and Mango are both wealthy businessmen who’ve each pumped $6 million into their campaigns.
That allowed them to make heavy TV ad buys, which began with positive biographical spots, progressed to attack ads on a variety of policy issues, and have now become intensely personal.
Attacks on character and record sometimes occur in races where candidates have similar policy views and have to draw distinctions in other ways.
I asked Jon Delano, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Business Times who teaches public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, whether there are sharp policy differences between Wagner and Mango.
“Well, they would have you believe that there are,” Delano said. “But I haven’t seen any direct evidence that they are anything but the conservatives that they claim to be.”
Of course, Wagner and Mango aren’t the only candidates in the race.
Laura Ellsworth, a high-powered attorney and civic leader in Pittsburgh, has so far stayed above the fray — and below the radar to much of the public.
She doesn’t have the personal wealth to bankroll the ads Mango and Wagner have, but she said in an interview that’s not how most voters want to pick the next governor.
“I don’t think the governor’s office is for sale,” Ellsworth said. “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.”
Ellsworth hasn’t yet placed TV ads, which is the quickest way to become known in this sprawling state. She said she’ll be on TV later in the campaign when voters are more focused.
If the air wars between Mango and Wagner continue to intensify, Delano said, it could help Ellsworth on primary day.
“If you’re a Republican voter, you’ll see three names on the ballot,” Delano said. “Two of them are men who are essentially attacking each other day and night, so you just might opt for that third person who’s on the ballot who hasn’t engaged in any of that stuff.”
The most recent campaign finance reports showed that, as of March 26, Ellsworth had $434,158 on hand. Mango had $3.2 million, and Wagner had $6.2 million.
What’s ahead? Mango’s ad calling Wagner a deadbeat dad finished with an announcer saying, “coming soon, violent Wagner.” That was accompanied by brief audio of a physical confrontation Wagner had on the campaign trial with an opposition “tracker,” someone assigned to videotape all his public comments.
I asked Baynon if the Mango campaign would be coming out with a “violent Wagner” ad.
Yes, he said, and it wouldn’t be based on any one incident, but would show Wagner as “a violent, unhinged individual, going back decades.”
The winner of the GOP primary will face incumbent Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf in November.