Rep. Ron Miller's withdrawal from the primary for the vacant 28th state Senate seat has changed the dynamics of the race, and two of the remaining candidates are hoping it tones down the negative rhetoric as well.
A weeks-long public battle between Miller supporters and Spring Garden Township businessman Scott Wagner preceded the March 18 special election held to temporarily fill the seat.
Wagner won as a Republican write-in candidate. Miller, an incumbent House Republican from Jacobus who was the party's nominee, said the combative tone of the race was one reason he withdrew his name from the primary ballot Tuesday.
Wagner billed Miller as a "career politician" who was "sold" to Republican Party leaders, while the state-level Republican Party sponsored ads slamming the conservative Wagner as a "millionaire trashman."
Miller said he would have changed the tone of the race for the primary — but he didn't trust Wagner's supporters to do the same.
Wagner declined to address that assertion Wednesday, saying he's focused on taking the office to which he was elected and winning the upcoming primary.
"It's almost like it would be best for me not to comment on his comments," Wagner said. "Ron made his decision. I'm in primary mode and moving forward."
Wagner will fill the seat through the end of the term Nov. 30 and is on the ballot for the May 20 primary. The winners of the primary advance to a November general election, the winner of which will fill the seat for a four-year term.
New Republican: Wagner's only remaining Republican challenger is Windsor Township's Zack Hearn, a 37-year-old political newcomer who works as a veterans' advocate in Washington, D.C.
Hearn said people have been warning him of the perils of such a hotly contested race, but the pre-special election tactics are "not an approach that I would endorse or I would take."
"To me it was childish, and I understand that there were outside parties involved in that," he said. "The county's tired of it."
Hearn doesn't have a voting record in Harrisburg, so there's nothing for which he could be attacked, he said. His position outside the special election chaos became part of his identity as a candidate, he said.
Knocking on doors, he made it a point of noting he was the Republican "who's not littering your mailbox with all the flyers."
"It was to the point where my wife was calling it the WagMill War," he said. "I kind of had to laugh. She would be like, 'Look at this, we got two of them today.'"
Hearn's primary campaign will focus on his policy differences with the other Republican, he said.
For example, he said Wagner's plan to eliminate property taxes will come up short of the necessary revenue.
"Everybody would love to eliminate it, but I'm just not sure the funding is there," Hearn said.
Hearn said he's not sure of his odds now that the party favorite has withdrawn his name.
"Strictly from a Vegas standpoint, one out of two is better than one of three," he said. "But I don't know what Miller supporters are thinking. Are they more willing to go with Wagner or more willing to go with me?"
The Democrat: Linda Small isn't facing a Democratic primary challenger, so Miller's withdrawal only narrows the possibilities for her opponent in the November general election.
For the later election, she said Miller's having left the race might present an opportunity to woo Republican voters, who make up a majority of the district.
"Democrats now are like the Eisenhower Republicans used to be," she said. "If you want a moderate ... that's me. I think I am by far the best candidate for the people."
She also said her campaign will focus on highlighting policy differences. For example, she wants to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, while Wagner wants an increase to only about $9.
"I will criticize somebody's policy ideas ... but criticizing a person won't make my ideas any better," she said.
She said the vitriol shown during the special election highlights the need for campaign finance reform.
"It might not have changed negativity, but it would have changed the amount of it."
— Reach Christina Kauffman at email@example.com.