(Harrisburg) — It’s a Tuesday evening in early May, and an elaborately-decorated lobby in Malvern is swarming with Republicans.
A number are state officials, or officers for the Pennsylvania GOP. Many more are members of the Chester County Republican Party–the group behind this particular dinner.
But the keynote speaker, and the name on most of the signs, banners, and lapel buttons, is a guy who still describes himself as a political outsider, even after four years in the state Senate.
At this point, York County Senator Scott Wagner has been running for governor for a year and a half, and is the closest thing this race has to a household name.
Owner of a successful waste-hauling company, he has sunk millions of his own dollars into his campaign. And all the while, he has walked a line between criticizing Pennsylvania’s government, and trying to show voters he knows how to navigate it.
“When I was on the outside, you know I was critical of how Harrisburg operated, critical of the people,” Wagner said at the reception. “And I’ve been there, and I’ve found out where the problems are.”
Early in the race, pundits dubbed Wagner a sort of ultra-conservative “Donald Trump-lite.”
And though the label has stuck, the candidate has lately pitched himself as more of a straightforward problem solver.
“I don’t think this is a competition about ‘who’s more conservative,'” he said after one debate, at which rival Paul Mango had billed himself as furthest right. “It’s about who understands the issues.”
On a few issues, Wagner has backed into positions that skew toward the center.
He supports so-called “clean slate” legislation designed to help criminal offenders exit the justice system, for instance. He also said he’s open to raising the minimum wage by a couple dollars, and wants to expand anti-discrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
But on most matters–from budgeting, to gun background checks, to the death penalty–he’s well within, or beyond, established Republican party lines.
Once, asked how he proposes keeping schools safe, Wagner suggested mandatory death sentences for convicted shooters–a measure that’s widely considered unconstitutional.
“It’s bottom line,” he said. “If you’re going to kill children, we’re going to kill you.”
State GOP chair Val DiGiorgio said that’s really why Wagner landed the coveted party endorsement.
“Look, Scott had been running for a couple years for this. People knew him, they knew his record,” DiGiorgio said. “Scott is the man for the age right now. It’s the spirit of, we need to fix Harrisburg, and who can best do that?”
DiGiorgio, who was elected party chair last year, admitted the primary race is a lot more contentious than he anticipated
“A lot of passion,” he said. “Bunch of folks with a lot of passion. I just want everybody to stay positive as best they can. That’s been my request.”
As DiGiorgio spoke inside the Chester County reception, the other candidate responsible for a lot of that acrimony was actually in the room.
Like Wagner, former health systems consultant Paul Mango has contributed millions to his campaign. In his case, a lot of that money went toward ads attacking the Senator as, among other things, a “slumlord” and “deadbeat dad.”
Though the ads prompted DiGiorgio and the state party to call for civility, Mango stands by them.
“Oh, we’ve embraced it, of course,” he said. “The Senator spent about a million and a half dollars elevating our name ID, so we’re pretty pleased with it.”
The Pittsburgh-based Mango is generally considered an underdog.
And, standing in a back corner of the hotel conference room as Wagner prepares for his speech, he said as much.
“This is the Republican Party. Yes, I may be the candidate of the people and the outsider, but I’m going to need this party to help me beat Tom Wolf in the fall,” he said.
Like Wagner, Mango checks off most conservative boxes, and then some. He’s against broader gun background checks, wants to axe property taxes, and opposes legalizing recreational marijuana.
He also noted, he’s even further right in a few areas. For instance, he personally opposes gay marriage, though noted he wouldn’t defy the Supreme Court. And he doesn’t want to expand anti-discrimination laws for fear they’d compromise religious freedom.
“I’m the most conservative candidate in the race, and that’s been confirmed by independent parties including the Family Research Council, including folks like Rick Santorum,” Mango said.
Underdog though he may be, Mango doesn’t have the biggest disadvantage in the race. That honor belongs to the third candidate: Pittsburgh lawyer Laura Ellsworth.
She’s the least well-funded contender, and the only one who hasn’t been able to put millions of her own dollars into self-promotion. Just recently, Ellsworth started airing her very first round of TV ads.
So, at least partly out of necessity, she has stood aside as Wagner and Mango have ripped each other on the airwaves, and has tried to offer voters an alternative.
“People have been watching TV, and are saying ‘I can’t believe this is my choice,'” she said. “And then when they find out there is another choice…we’ve been finding some really positive results, so that’s a good thing.”
On a sunny Saturday, not far from where Mango and Wagner mingled at the county GOP dinner, Ellsworth spent the morning at a Bryn Mawr farmers’ market.
Standing behind a small table decorated with balloons and campaign signs, she pitched her platform to anyone who stopped by–explaining to interested market-goers that “we’re running on civility, getting things done, stopping all the nonsense and the shouting, and just delivering results for people.”
In a lot of ways, Ellsworth isn’t too different from her opponents, with her aversion to abortion and tax hikes, and support for the death penalty.
She differs in a few important ways, though. She supports an independent citizen’s commission on redistricting and is the only candidate who supported John Kasich for president, instead of Donald Trump. Plus, Ellsworth opposes eliminating property taxes for fear of destabilizing schools, and wants separate funding streams for public and charter schools.
That day at the market, many people–like longtime conservative Wendy Wilson–were on board, and looking for a change of pace.
“I’m fed up with the whole thing. I just turn off the news,” she said. “It’s really awful…I just want to–let’s get on with it.”
Sitting there at the farmers’ market booth, Wilson wrote Ellsworth a check on the spot.
The candidate said lately, those reactions are happening all across the commonwealth.
But even so, she acknowledged, it’s tough to get past her opponents’ fundraising leads.
There has been little external polling done on the race–but a few recent surveys have shown no matter who wins the GOP nomination, incumbent Democrat Tom Wolf currently has an advantage heading into November’s general election.
The primary is on May 15.