By Andrew Staub | PA Independent
Conservative activist Josh First plans to run for the Pennsylvania Senate in two years, and he says he hopes the GOP dumps truckloads of money into the race.
Only he wants to see that campaign cash used against him.
That’s how emboldened the more conservative flank of the state’s Republican Party has become — and how toxic the party establishment can be — after upstart Scott Wagner won a state Senate seat in York County last week.
Even though he is a registered Republican, Wagner faced an onslaught of aggressive ads as the Senate Republican Campaign Committee tried to buoy support for state Rep. Ron Miller, the candidate endorsed by the York County GOP.
“The dynamics are dramatically going against the party,” First said. “These bully tactics, smear campaigns, are foolhardy. They are a waste of precious resources. Fighting other Republicans? I mean, that’s nuts.”
The upset win is evidence of a schism between the grassroots segment of the party and Pennsylvania’s establishment GOP. Wagner, a wealthy businessman, said the Republican Party made a “huge mistake” when it went after him.
“I’ll be honest with you, they screwed with the wrong guy,” said Wagner, who ginned up ample support through his own campaign advertising and the plentiful news coverage of the race, then benefited from dismal voter turnout.
Many of those went to the polls were purposeful in their voting. Some said they were upset about what they perceived as a special election intended to lay out the red carpet for Miller, or felt Wagner was unfairly attacked.
State Sen. Richard Alloway, the chairman of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, didn’t return multiple messages seeking comment.
G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and professor of political science at Franklin & Marshall College, said he doesn’t doubt there’s an intra-party war between hardline conservatives and the more pragmatic traditional Republicans.
Still, he isn’t convinced Wagner’s election portends a massive shakeup of the state Legislature, especially with many candidates running unopposed in the upcoming election.
“I don’t exactly see a revolt of the masses out there,” Madonna said. “This election had a set of peculiarities that we don’t know yet what it means. I don’t think you can predict a future based on that one.”
Wagner spent big money to win a race that included a set of “unusual circumstances,” Madonna said, pointing to the argument that rank-and-file Republicans weren’t permitted a voice in a primary because of state laws that allow the party to nominate a candidate.
Miller has said there was no plan to hand pick Waugh’s successor, though Wagner contends party insiders leaked out word about the GOP’s strategy to get the state representative into the Senate as far back as last fall.
“They’re like little school girls in Harrisburg. They can’t keep their mouths shut,” Wagner said.
Tangible signs didn’t manifest until Jan. 13, when state Sen. Mike Waugh announced his immediate retirement and took a job as executive director of the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex.
The same day, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley set a special election for March 18, and soon after Miller announced his candidacy. Wagner decided not to seek the county party’s nomination, opting for his write-in campaign instead.
Shortly after Miller conceded, York County GOP Chairman Bob Wilson lamented the divide in his own party that’s kept Republicans from focusing their resources on battling the Democratic Party. He also indicated the special election could become a “test-case” scenario for Pennsylvania and perhaps the country.
Wilson would like to work with the tea party faction of the GOP, but he said they’ve rebuffed olive branches that have been extended. They don’t want to “get their hands dirty” working with the so-called establishment, he said.
“Unfortunately, the vast majority of them are looking for purity,” Wilson said, “and when they’re looking for purity, here again, the liberal left will never be pure enough for any conservative or right-wing, grassroots movement type of individuals.”
Those such as First, though, say the establishment is too quick to compromise and is perverted by a culture of entitlement and arrogance.
First said it’s a mistake to think Wagner’s win is the test case. He pointed to two other local races as evidence the party establishment has erred in its election tactics.
Two years ago, First ran for state Senate, losing in a three-person primary to John McNally, the former Dauphin County GOP chairman who was backed by the county party. McNally lost to Democratic nominee Rob Teplitz in the general election, ending more than 75 years of Republican hold on the 15th District seat.
In another case, the Dauphin County GOP endorsed a young lawyer, Jenna Lewis, for state representative, only to see her fall to the incumbent in the primary.
Wagner’s win also comes after Tom Smith won the party’s nomination for U.S. Senate, despite Republican Gov. Tom Corbett favoring another candidate. Leo Knepper, executive director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit that favors limited government, said it’s further proof the days of the party anointing its next lawmakers could be coming to an end.
“It’s just further evidence that the process is becoming more decentralized,” Knepper said. “And that’s a good thing because you have someone who is now not beholden to Senate leadership.”
Instead, hardline conservatives are emboldened, though First said the party still will try to keep a grip on election outcomes. He compared it to a small child that touches a hot stove after already being burned once.
“That is a really good analogy for the Republican Party in Pennsylvania,” First said. “They know that they are going to get burned, but they can’t help themselves. They are just like a moth to a flame, drawn to the illusory hold on power.”
Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.