When it comes to political campaigns, people tend to pay attention to the donut and ignore the hole.
The donut part is this: In the Republican campaign for governor, York County’s Scott Wagner defeated Pittsburgh-area businessman Paul Mango and lawyer Laura Ellsworth. It was an expensive, nasty campaign, with Wagner and Mango each spending in the neighborhood of $10 million. Wagner will now face incumbent Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf in November.
The hole part is this: Turnout was lousy. Only 23 percent of the state’s 3.2 million Republicans showed up to vote, despite the barrage of TV ads by the two main candidates. To put it another way, 77 percent of the party’s voters sat this election out.
Granted, turnout is traditionally low in primaries, but the last time the Republicans had a contested gubernatorial race – Tom Corbett vs. Sam Rohrer in 2010 – turnout was 29 percent.
To me, that is a bad sign for Wagner. He is running an angry, anti-incumbent campaign that requires him to (a) mobilize his Republican base; (b) find a way to reach Democrats disaffected by Wolf; and (c) make inroads with the growing number of voters who are registered as independents or members of smaller parties.
He may have to spend more time and money doing (a) in the fall campaign, which will take away time and resources needed for tasks (b) and (c).
Wagner was the dominant candidate in the primary. He won 42 of the state’s 67 counties but got over 50 percent of the vote in only 18. The numbers show some of his weak spots.
No. 1, not surprisingly, is in southeast Pennsylvania. Turnout in Chester and Montgomery Counties were both below the statewide average. In Philadelphia, it was a miserable 13 percent. This is the territory where the applause-o-meter registers the lowest for the conservative pol.
For another barometer, look at the performance of Ellsworth, the most mainstream Republican in the race who (alas for her) never raised the money she needed to be competitive. Statewide, Ellsworth captured only 19 percent of the vote, finishing in third place. But, if you look at where she did best there is a surprise: she was especially strong in central Pennsylvania. Her top three counties were Cumberland (28 percent), Dauphin (27 percent) and Lebanon (25 percent). Naturally, she tanked in York County (16 percent) because that is Wagner’s home base (He got 65 percent of the vote there). But, she did get 22 percent in neighboring Lancaster County.
Wagner averaged 41 percent of the vote in those same counties (excluding York) – enough to beat out Mango and Ellsworth – but not the kind of showing you want in the area right around your home. The word commanding is the one you want applied, not meh.
Wagner is a smart, tough guy – the Sgt. Rock of Pennsylvania politics – who will have the money and moxie to run a vigorous fall campaign. My only piece of advice: watch out for the hole.
Tom Ferrick is an award-winning reporter and columnist who has covered the politics of state and local government since the 1970s.