Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai has informed high-level Republican sources that he will announce a long-anticipated bid for governor by Thursday, several GOP sources have told City&State PA.
Reached for comment, Jeff Coleman, Turzai’s campaign consultant from Churchill Strategies, refused to confirm or deny event details. However, shortly after the initial publication of this story, Turzai told reporters he was, in fact, running. Coleman later acknowledged that there would be a campaign event on Thursday, while a website called "PA Fights Back" launched minutes later to promote the event.
Turzai will have to decide whether he will seek reelection for his own legislative seat. Failure to do so could leave him jobless after a possible defeat while running two campaigns at once could expose him to criticism. Coleman also wouldn’t say, but sources asserted that several months ago, Turzai confidants had discussed having him remain Speaker during his campaign.
Holding the House’s top leadership post since 2015, Turzai will become Wolf’s most high-profile would-be challenger to date as the fourth candidate in the 2018 race for the Republican nomination – the others are state Sen. Scott Wagner, lawyer Laura Ellsworth and businessman Paul Mango.
Turzai is one of the most prominent figures in Harrisburg and has spent much of the past year publicly feuding with Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican Senate leadership over the recent budget impasse. Deals to pay for the $32 billion budget passed in June were repeatedly delayed for months over the House’s objections to proposed tax increases and its competing vision for new gambling revenue.
Turzai clearly hopes to benefit from his role as a foil to Wolf and GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati. He released unusual campaign-style ads during the crisis describing the House as “the last line of defense” for taxpayers on his website. His Wikipedia page has also ballooned with information about the Speaker’s recent activity, including intricate details about various budget proposals and excerpts from op-eds penned by Turzai.
But Franklin & Marshall pollster G. Terry Madonna wasn’t sure how far Turzai’s actions during the dispute would take the Speaker in a high-profile, statewide contest.
“If you want to get something through the House, you have to deal with the caucus leader, as Wolf and the Senate found out,” he said. “But the average voter paid virtually no attention to the debate about how to fund the budget shortfall. You know why? Because not a single service was cut. Not a single employee was laid off.”
Madonna described Turzai as “an establishment Republican” who would have to walk a fine line to distinguish himself from the Trump-like Wagner and more establishment figures like Mango and Ellsworth.
GOP consultant Charlie Gerow, who called himself an “admirer” of the Speaker, countered that it would be easy for Turzai to build a campaign off accomplishments like forcing a reassessment of tax hikes in the final budget deal.
“Voters may not have paid attention and the intricacies of the budget process are confusing. But it’s easy to understand the story that Turzai kept your taxes from going up. That’s not a hard sell,” he said. “He’s part of the establishment, but he’s also reform-minded. He can say, ‘I have been able to get things done but I’m not part of the swamp.’ He got part of the antiquated liquor system privatized – that is also a huge talking point.”
Turzai will compete for votes against Mango and Ellsworth, the two other Republican candidates who also hail from Western Pennsylvania. While the region has trended red in recent years and likely delivered the state to Trump, many voters are still registered as Democrats.
“For the primary to be directly impacted, Democrats would have to re-register. Some might do that, but I doubt it would be an exodus,” Gerow said. “The real battleground for votes is going to be in the Southeast, in those collar counties around Philadelphia.”
That could be anyone’s game. Voters in that region turned out in force last week to express their displeasure with President Donald Trump, sending Democratic candidates to office even in traditional GOP strongholds. While Turzai was elected to Allegheny County’s 28th District back in 2001, he (and other Republican candidates) have little name recognition in the voter-rich Southeast.
What happens to the winner of the Republican primary is even less clear. Madonna described Republican electoral odds generally in 2018 as “not favorable” in light of last week’s election.
State Democrats were quick to paint Turzai as both an establishment figure and the primary cause of a months-long budget impasse.
“It’s apparent that political insider Mike Turzai paralyzed state government and caused a credit downgrade so he could advance his own political ambitions and protect his donors in the oil and gas industry,” said party spokesperson Beth Melena, about the Speaker’s prospective candidacy. “Mike Turzai has spent nearly two decades defending the status quo and special interests in Harrisburg.”
This story has been updated to include Speaker Turzai's remarks to the Associated Press.