Pennsylvania already has five choices for governor going into 2018 in a race that could potentially put the national spotlight on the Keystone State.
The primary battle between four Republican hopefuls is considered by some to be a bellwether for the direction of the GOP on the national level, with candidates having to reconcile the party’s Trump-era base with the prospects of defeating incumbent Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in a general election.
“We’re at the strangest point we’ve been in modern political history, and Pennsylvania is not immune to that,” said Terry Madonna, a pollster and political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College.
In an interview with The Sentinel last week, state House Speaker Mike Turzai, the latest Republican to enter the race, said he planned to run on his leadership record, first as House majority leader under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, and currently as speaker under Wolf.
“I’m a known commodity,” Turzai said. “I have always run on a platform to change the way things are done in Harrisburg, and the House has lived by example for the past eight years that I’ve been in the leadership.”
Democrats would naturally disagree, with Wolf and Turzai having frequently traded blows over budget stalemates. But potentially more importantly, Turzai will need to overcome his primary rivals, at least two of whom have strongly adopted the Trump-era aesthetic.
State Sen. Scott Wagner of York County has already begun running a bevy of advertisements with a “take out the trash in Harrisburg” message that mirrors Trump’s “drain the swamp” mantra, except featuring Wagner’s waste disposal business.
In September, Wagner also appeared at an ultra-conservative event in St. Louis where he got the nod from a Steve Bannon, a former adviser to President Donald Trump. But Wagner has been cautious to not make his race entirely about riding the winds of the far right.
Given their similar views on taxes and deregulation, “it is not surprising that those who support the president are excited about Scott’s candidacy,” said Wagner spokesman Andrew Romeo. “That being said, this race isn’t about Donald Trump, Steve Bannon or any other national figure, it’s about the people of Pennsylvania.”
Similarly, Pittsburgh businessman Paul Mango has also courted the hard-right base, particularly on social issues, and has emphasized his military experience. Mango’s website features endorsements from Trump lobbyist David Urban and Trump ally Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas.
“The real question for Republicans is whether the Trump base has stayed motivated and will turn out,” Madonna said. “And if that is your strategy, it’s more likely to win a primary than it is a general because of Trump’s slumping job approval outside the hard base.”
To this end, the GOP also has a fourth option in 2018 — Laura Ellsworth, a high-profile Pittsburgh attorney who told the Associated Press in October that she wrote in John Kasich in the 2016 election.
Ellsworth and Mango also have the benefit of being political novices, and Wagner only has four years in Harrisburg, as opposed to Turzai’s 16.
“The problem you have is that, with the way the Republican base is right now, you have to run as an outsider,” Madonna said. “That leaves Turzai with the hardest needle to thread.”
But Turzai sees this as a potential asset, not an obstacle: He’s the one with the background to challenge Wolf on hard policy points. For instance, Wolf’s frequent campaign point that Republicans cut education funding by $1 billion when they had complete control under GOP Gov. Tom Corbett, Wolf’s predecessor.
“Ed Rendell propped up education and social services with federal stimulus dollars, but those dollars started to taper off,” Turzai retorted. “We never cut state funding to education, and were able to pass on-time budgets even as we lost federal funding. What’ the difference in the equation now? Wolf.”
But Wolf’s approval ratings, while still under 50 percent in most polls versus a generic alternative candidate, have been on the upswing.
Madonna credited this to Wolf having fared better politically in the last round of budget battles with the GOP.
“The best position for Wolf is that he has not taken as much of a hit on the budget,” Madonna said. “The Republicans passed a spending plan and then took three months fighting amongst themselves on how to pay for it. Wolf came out looking much better.”
Further, Madonna said, the state GOP’s budget has relied heavily on borrowing from internal funds and from future revenue from the state’ tobacco settlement and wine privatization—as opposed to Wolf’s balanced budget proposal. This, coupled with Republicans’ embrace at the national level of a $1.5 trillion deficit spending plan to make way for corporate tax cuts, threatens to abdicate the GOP’s mantle of fiscal conservatism for many Pennsylvania voters.
But even if they aren’t in lockstep with the national GOP on every issue, the one item that state and local Republicans tend to always embrace is tax policy.
In his interview, Turzai expressed confidence that the Trump tax cuts would pan out as the president promised.
“I think most Pennsylvanians, if not all Pennsylvanians, will benefit,” Turzai said. “I do think the private sector is going to flourish as a result.”
Turzai asserted that no increases to Pennsylvania’s tax structure would be necessary in the coming years, assuming that revenue from the current structure grew 3 to 4 percent per year due in part to the Trump cuts.
Republicans will also likely press hard on Wolf’s previous budget proposals that have included income and sales tax hikes, Madonna predicted. But Wolf can also press back that such increases were due to Republicans’ opposition to his Marcellus Shale tax proposal, as well has his pitch for corporate tax reform that would’ve limited corporations’ net operating loss deduction. Roughly 70 percent of PA C-registered corporations report zero tax liability in a given year, but Republicans and Democrats have disagreed on how to rectify loopholes.
“Obviously they’re going to call Wolf out on his proposals for income and sales tax hikes, but he’ll stick with the shale tax, which is much more popular,” Madonna said.
In an email, Pennsylvania Democratic campaign spokesperson Beth Melena also cited another strong Wolf campaign point: The governor “expanded health insurance to over 720,000 Pennsylvanians and lowered the commonwealth’s uninsured rate to the lowest it has ever been,” Melena said.
This statistic comes from offering federally subsidized private health insurance, as well as the Medicaid expansion, that was offered to the states under former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Wolf’s support for ACA initiatives is likely a political winner, given that the GOP’s efforts at the federal level to repeal the ACA over the past year have polled very poorly.
That leaves state-level reform, particularly on environmental and building regulation, as potentially winning issues for the GOP that don’t get bogged down in adverse national politics.
Turzai pointed to the reductions of state executives’ per-diem allowances, and the introduction of employee cost-sharing on health insurance, as sensible measures he has implemented during his House leadership to reduce the state’s overhead.
He also said he plans to press hard on regulatory reform, with plans to introduce a bill that would set hard timelines for state agencies to respond to applications.
“We’ve contemplated a ‘deemed-as approved’ if you don’t at least provide a response,” Turzai said. “Let folks know so they can adjust. ... We need predictability and stability in our regulatory process in order to grow the state’s economy. There are fine people in those [regulatory] departments but it depends on what kind of message you’re getting from the top.”