Is he a game changer or is his game merely over?
After the late entry of Jack Wagner, no question looms larger, at the moment, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary race. Wagner is a former two-term auditor general of Pennsylvania, former state senator, former Pittsburgh councilman, former candidate for lieutenant governor, former candidate for governor, former candidate for Pittsburgh mayor –and seemingly perennial candidate for public office. He has sought statewide election four times, winning twice and losing twice.
His entry seems inauspicious. Virtually unprecedented in a gubernatorial race, he announced his candidacy so late that the nominating petition circulation had already begun. Worse, he has a mere $30, 000 in his campaign bankroll, in a race where $5 million is considered the buy-in, and the winner of the primary will need to raise $10 million or more. Pennsylvania is a quintessential television state: you can lose with it, but you can’t win without it.
By now the dynamics of the contest have been set. Seven candidates are already in the race, each with a variety of backgrounds and experiences, all living in the voter-rich eastern part of the state. Campaign organizations are up and operating while serious fundraising has been going on for at least a year. Moreover, Wagner is entering after important party activists and unions have already committed to a candidate.
So, why should his candidacy be taken seriously? Is it a very public political suicide or a bold game changer?
It could be either.
What is unambiguously clear is that Wagner’s candidacy is about geography. In particular, the roughly 26 counties west of the Appalachian divide, bordered in the north by McKean County and in the south by Bedford County — better known as “western Pennsylvania.”
Western Pennsylvania could be the geography that matters in the 2014 Democratic primary.
There are two reasons to believe this. First, until Wagner’s late entry the crowded Democrat primary had no candidates from the west.
Second, and more importantly, western Pennsylvania has shown over the past 50 or so years a penchant for supporting hometown candidates — that is, candidates from the western part of the state.
We call it a penchant rather than a pattern because it hasn’t been consistent from election to election. Furthermore, it seems to operate more strongly in general elections than primaries. Nevertheless, caveats and exceptions noted, back at least as far as Dick Thornburgh and Tom Ridge, the western Pennsylvania vote has often gone disproportionately to western candidates.
What western Pennsylvania Democratic voters do this year could decide the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Arithmetic rather than geography makes this clear. In a crowded field of eight candidates, the winner may win with 25 percent of the vote. And western Pennsylvania alone provides this proportion of the statewide vote.
The path to a Wagner victory is straightforward enough. He needs to hold his own in eastern Pennsylvania, while building up large pluralities in his home base of Allegheny County as well as surrounding areas
This scenario assumes none of the other candidates create a statewide persona; that they end up dividing the votes in the east and Wagner sails in boosted by his western Pennsylvania support. So Wagner’s strategy is a regional strategy, where the compass will be more important than issues or ideologies.
But can he do it? It might depend on which Jack Wagner shows up for the campaign. In 2002, Wagner could not make it happen, losing a primary bid for lieutenant governor, defeated by another western Pa candidate, Catherine Baker Knoll. Two years later, however, in 2004, he showed he could win his regional base in a general election when he won his first term as auditor general by almost 360,000 votes. Significantly, 270,000 of them came from the Southwest, 190,000 alone from Allegheny County.
What does all of this mean in this year’s primary?
On paper Wagner looks strong. Twice a statewide winner, he retains substantial name recognition from earlier campaigns in the west and is an experienced campaigner. But Democratic primaries aren’t won on paper and this one in particular is going to be fought in the trenches, which means organization, and on the media airwaves, which means money. Wagner has little of either.
What he also doesn’t have much of is time to make up these deficits. With primary Election Day less than three months away, the challenges for him are immense. Nonetheless, it would be reckless to count him out. For a half century western Pennsylvania has been the most valuable political real estate in Pennsylvania. It may still be.