Wagner eyes governor's office

Greg Gross

State Sen. Scott Wagner has a good shot at becoming the Republican nominee for governor should he run in the 2018 gubernatorial race, one political analyst said.

"At the moment I would say he'd be electable in a Republican primary," said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. "He has the money. He's developed a following, and he has a good relationship with Senate leadership."

Wagner, in an email blast last week, said he's been asked numerous times if he'll run for governor. He's considering it, the email reads.

"I'm giving it some thought. There's a lot of soul-searching before you take that plunge," said Wagner in an interview on Thursday. "That decision's not going to be made tomorrow."

At the same time, Wagner, 60, didn't mince words about whether he's qualified to be governor, a position he said lacks a leader now.

"Frankly, I think I have the skills," he said, adding he'd support someone who'd be a stronger candidate than him but he has yet to meet that person.

The often-outspoken first-term Republican senator from Spring Garden Township has quickly risen to prominence in Harrisburg and beyond since winning a special election in historic fashion in 2014. He was the first person to win a Senate seat as a write-in candidate.

That's also the year another York County native, Tom Wolf, made history when he unseated incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. It was the first time in modern history that a seated Pennsylvania governor wasn't granted a second term.

In the making: Bob Kefauver, the former head of the York County Democratic Party, said he believes Wagner first laid the tracks that lead to the governor's office years ago.

"From the time that Scott Wagner announced his run for senator, two things were clear: That he wanted to go to Harrisburg to represent a constituency of one: Scott Wagner," Kefauver said. "And that the Senate seat was a stepping stone to governor's office, which is what he really wanted."

Wagner said when he tossed his hat into the senate race, he had not thought he'd actually become a senator, yet alone position himself for a run at the governorship.

Wolf, then-chairman of his family-owned Wolf Organization, and Wagner, the owner of Penn Waste Inc. and KBS Trucking, largely self-funded their respective campaigns, and both have shaken up the capital since taking office.

Madonna said he has no doubt Wagner would again pour money into a run for the governor's office.

"You can't diminish that. That's pretty important," he said.

Though the gubernatorial race is still two years out, a candidate has to start laying the groundwork for a run well in advance, said Alex Shorb, head of the York County GOP.

"I know he (Wagner) is positioning himself to at least give himself the possibility to do it," Shorb said, adding that a lot can change in two years. "You have to be patient and watch things play out."

Inroads: Wagner, who once described himself as a "disrupter" and a Harrisburg outsider, is now a member of the state Senate Republican Campaign Committee, the group charged with getting more Republicans in the Senate. Madonna noted the irony that the committee fought hard to prevent Wagner from winning the special election now has Wagner as an influential member.

That's a pretty good indication that Wagner has made inroads with the establishment, Madonna said.

"He has extended his reach and his presence, as well as his influence within the Republican Party," he said.

Wagner said he can understand why some people are asking him about a run or are assuming he is running for governor.

"I think people are assuming since I'm attacking the governor on his policies that I want his job," he said.

Wagner bill would give some criminals a clean slate

Appeal: But the inroads might not be enough for Wagner to win the gubernatorial race that's still two years out.

"Once you get outside of this area, he's not well-known with the average voter," Madonna said.

That, however, appears to be changing. Wagner regularly secures headlines in Pittsburgh- and Philadelphia-area newspapers, broadening his reach and possible appeal.

Wagner has been an outspoken critic of unions' influence on Pennsylvania politics and regularly draws connections between Democrats and union officials.

"The question is if that fits what the voters care about," Madonna said. "There isn't any doubt Wagner represents a sect of the Republican electorate we call the tea party, whether he wants to admit it or not."

But Wagner's ability to win the November 2018 election remains to be seen, Madonna said.

Wagner also has  been reaching across the aisle of late, such as teaming with Senate Democrats to introduce a bill that would seal the criminal records of nonviolent offenders who haven't committed another crime after a period of time.

But Kefauver said voters shouldn't be fooled by Wagner's bipartisan efforts and pointed to some of Wagner's controversial comments as a sign of the real Wagner.

"That is a clear indication of who Scott Wagner really is," Kefauver said.

Dems want Sen. Wagner comment denounced

Controversy: In 2014, he compared public union workers to Adolf Hitler, a remark Wagner later apologized for making. Also, during a phone interview with a radio program that year, Wagner said he'll be "sitting in the back of the room with a baseball bat" in reference to getting things done in Harrisburg.

And earlier this year he drew the ire of state Democrats when he said Republicans had Wolf "down on the floor with our foot on his throat and we let him up. Next time, we won't let him up" when discussing the state budget impasse at state GOP's Winter Meeting in Hershey.

"I think when you're looking at Scott, the comments that he makes, that part of who he is. He speaks from the heart," Shorb said. "At the same time, I also compliment him for growing into the role of state senator."

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @ggrossyd.