A provocative Republican-sponsored campaign mailer brought groans from campaign-fatigued voters when it hit the 28th Senate District this week, just days before a March 18 special election.
The latest ad spanks write-in candidate Scott Wagner for his company's 2004 suit against a then-84-year-old Springettsbury Township woman who didn't pay her trash bill.
"Shame on millionaire trashman Scott Wagner for suing an elderly widow for services she didn't use," the ad reads.
"She wanted to enjoy her later years until her life was turned upside down by Scott Wagner and his company."
Wagner's waste disposal company, Penn Waste, won the suit against Clara Palmer in district court; Palmer, just like all of her neighbors, was bound by a municipal contract to pay for curbside service even if she disposed of her trash through some other method.
But the ad quotes the now-94-year-old saying Wagner is a "bully," and son David Palmer warning, "What Scott Wagner did to my mother is definitely wrong."
The ad encourages voters to "Stand up for Clara" by voting for Rep. Ron Miller, R-Jacobus.
Campaign: While he has financially supported mainstream Republicans, Wagner has also been outspoken against incumbent Republicans and supported the campaigns of tea party and other independent challengers.
As an apparent response, the Republican Party of Pennsylvania and the Senate Republican Campaign Committee have launched television and mail ads against him.
The mailer comes on the heels of a television commercial that featured a picture of Wagner superimposed with dead fish. The ad, according to Wagner, misrepresented a 2006 paperwork error as an environmental disaster.
Voters: Wagner said he's "thick-skinned" and knew what he was getting into when he entered the race, but some voters are crying mercy.
John LeCates of York Township is among the GOP voters bemoaning the negative tenor of the race. The 55-year-old has been a lifelong Republican, he said, a committee member and an "Abe-Lincoln-Ronald-Reagan Republican."
While Wagner's views are "farther right" than LeCates', he said the personal attacks are "going below the belt" and creating supporters for Wagner.
"People are in an uproar about it, and I hear people talking about Scott more than before," he said. "They're saying maybe it is time for a change."
He said the negative ads are giving Wagner more name recognition and they're also in such "bad taste" that they're "making him a martyr." He said he feels sorry for Palmer, but "everybody is supposed to pay their part."
Response: Miller said he didn't authorize the Republican ads against Wagner, and he thinks it's "a shame York County politics has to resort to this."
But he won't tell the Republican committees to stop because Wagner and his committees have also sent out negative ads, he said.
Wagner said: "The attacks are almost humorous to a point. It (ranges from) disgusting to humorous."
He pointed out that Palmer is still living on her 9-acre property in Springettsbury and she has managed to keep her account paid in full since she lost the case.
David Palmer, the son featured in the ad, said he and his mother agreed to appear in the ad after a private investigator contacted them and asked them to share their views about Wagner.
"We didn't want to be photographed," he said. "We just wanted the whole thing to go away."
But Palmer said he decided to go along with the ad to try to "stop Wagner."
"Look at how much power he has just as a garbage man," Palmer said. "What's he going to do as a senator?"
He said he and his mother have been "dragged into" a Senate race that is "totally embarrassing" and "obnoxious."
Palmer identified himself as a registered Democrat, and he declined to say whom he's supporting in the election.
Analyst weighs in: Non-partisan analyst Christopher Borick is a professor of political science and the director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. He said the negative ads being used in the race aren't unusual, but the state-level Republican Party's involvement is perhaps a sign of rising tension between tea party and mainstream Republicans.
Political parties typically stay out of primary races between two candidates of the same party, because the party will have to work with whichever candidate wins, he said.
"You don't want to burn those bridges completely ... or you could be left with a candidate that really has animosity toward the party. Maybe in this one, there was so much animosity to begin with, with him challenging Republican incumbents, that there was no pretense that they would ever be on the same side."
York County Republican Committee Chairman Bob Wilson said the local party has "zero input" on the ads that have been aired and mailed.
The race has been so aggressive because Wagner made it that way, years ago, Wilson said. As he did about the dead fish ad, Wilson said the GOP establishment just appears to be "fighting fire with fire."
The Senate Republican Campaign Committee's executive director did not return calls for comment, nor did overseeing Sens. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Richard Alloway, R-Adams/Cumberland/Franklin/York.
— Reach Christina Kauffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.