A bitter political battle is spilling into the living rooms and mailboxes of residents in the 28th Senate District.
Record spending is fueling a campaign that is taking a negative tone as the March 18 special election approaches. Some Republican insiders said they're concerned the in-fighting could push voters to the one candidate who is neither, the Democratic contender.
On one side is the state's mainstream Republican party, while on the other is conservative tea party supporter Republican Scott Wagner, who is opposing GOP party nominee Rep. Ron Miller, R-Jacobus. They're running for the seat left vacant by Mike Waugh's resignation.
Wagner owns Penn Waste trash hauling, and he's being labeled the "millionaire trashman" in television ads that hit the air this week, paid for by the Senate Republican Campaign Committee.
The ad says Wagner is "spewing all kinds of garbage again," and criticizes Wagner's $131,000 in campaign donations to a York County judicial candidate last year, saying he spent the money just to try to keep mainstream Republican and former U.S. Rep. Todd Platts from the bench.
The ad accuses Wagner of "trying to buy another election" with his big spending in the special election. It cites "environmental violations" at Wagner's business and ends with an image of Wagner superimposed with a pool of dead floating fish, saying, "Something doesn't smell right."
Senate Republican Campaign Committee executive director Tracy Kolich Hall deferred comment to her "bosses," Sens. Richard Alloway, R-Adams, Franklin and York counties, and Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, who did not return the call for comment Wednesday.
Response: Wagner said Wednesday the environmental violations cited in the ad were for failure to print the required monthly reports on a diesel fuel tank — the tank was never compromised and had not leaked. He said he's not surprised the GOP is "resorting to attacks on me."
"Ron Miller should be embarrassed they sent this out on his behalf," he said.
But the Republican mainstay said Wagner is the one who started the attacks.
Wagner, who has been campaigning since September, has been sending out hard-hitting mailers and running television ads criticizing a "political hit squad" that wants to "smear" him: the Republican establishment in Harrisburg, he said.
Wagner contends the state and local Republican parties conspired to deny him both a level playing field for the May 20 primary and a fair shake at the GOP special election nomination Miller was given. He accused politicians of striking a "backroom deal" to have Waugh resign in time for a special election for which they had hand-picked Miller long before the official nomination meeting was held. Citing his theory, Wagner withdrew his name from consideration before the nomination meeting, and Miller was nominated.
The winner of the special election will hold the seat until the end of the year, presumably enjoying the advantage of incumbency.
According to one Wagner political mailer, the Republican machine wants to stick taxpayers with a bill of about $200,000 for the special election, just to deny voters a choice.
Wagner said he doesn't consider any of his mailers or ads negative, because "they're factual."
Bob Wilson chairs the York County Republican Committee, the group that nominated Miller. He said the special election money and attacks are new to York County, where politicians typically send out some mailers, put out some yard signs and "kiss a couple of babies."
Wagner's money has changed everything, and campaign finance reform is needed, he said.
"We've created a system where only the uber rich, the uber wealthy, can run for office now," Wilson said.
Spending: Wilson said a typical York County Senate race might cost about $70,000. Wagner said Wednesday he has already spent "several hundred thousand dollars" of his own money on his campaign.
Miller said his first seven campaigns combined didn't cost $150,000. This year, though, he expects his committee, which did not pay for the Wagner "trashman ad," to spend about $100,000.
Miller said he didn't authorize the ad and hasn't even seen it, but he hasn't objected.
"There have been 45-60 days of negative ads run against me," he said. "When you are under negative ads for an extended period of time, you really don't object if someone wishes to point out some negativity about someone else. It's a shame."
Wilson said Wagner has for years been "dumping his money" into GOP-opposing candidates in York County and across the state, wasting resources that could be used to defeat Democrats, who will certainly never be conservative enough for his tastes.
"For a Republican to do that and want to take another Republican out, I just don't get that," Wilson said. "We're fighting fire with fire at this point."
But the tea party battle is one being played out in multiple elections all across the nation, he said.
"We as a Republican party have got to be smarter than this," he said.
The "stupidity" of the Republican attacks could turn voters to Democrat Linda Small, "and if it does, there's only one person to blame for that, and that would be Mr. Wagner at the end of the day."
The Democrat: Small has steered clear of the debate, using her time to collect numerous endorsement and "actually get something useful done."
She declined to say how much money her campaign will spend, but said everything that is spent will "go into explaining issues to the voters and where I stand."
"I'm going to attack them on the issues and attack the policy, but there won't be anything on my end to attack the people," she said. "This politics-by-attack is what turns people off of politics, and it's harmful to our system."
— Reach Christina Kauffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.