Jack Wagner for governor (again) could change the Democratic race

Posted: August 22, 2013

I SUPPOSE ED RENDELL could decide to run for governor again. Or Bobby Casey could.

Or Kathleen Kane, despite her denials, could still get in.

Or Pat Toomey could switch parties and run against the incumbent Republican.

But other than one of those things happening, little could shake up the Democratic race to oppose Tom Corbett more than Jack Wagner getting in.

The current field (let's call it "the many") of, I don't know, 17 or so actual or maybe Democratic candidates, all from central or eastern Pennsylvania, must feel a little spine shudder these days.

The last thing any of them needs as they seek their slice of the Democratic primary vote next spring is somebody, anybody running from the west.

Western candidates do well statewide. Westerners vote in higher proportions. And westerners are loyal to candidates from their region.

So if there are several candidates from everywhere but western Pennsylvania and one candidate from western Pennsylvania, you, as they say, can do the math.

Wagner could be the "Pittsburgh pill" that poisons the well for "the many."

"Yes," Wagner tells me, he's seriously considering a run and plans to make a decision "within weeks or a month."

He talks about "a vacuum of leadership" in Harrisburg. He says, "I think I know state government very well and I'm disappointed that issues aren't moving." He adds: "Harrisburg is a maze. You have to know how to work through it."

So here we go.

Or do we?

Wagner, no question, brings more government experience than most other possible candidates. But is that what voters want?

He was Pittsburgh City Council president, a three-term state senator, a two-term state auditor general. Is enough enough?

He's demonstrated he can win statewide.

In his 2008 auditor general re-election, he received 3.3 million votes, outpolling the ballot, including Barack Obama, state Treasurer Rob McCord (a potential primary opponent) and potential opponent Tom Corbett (then-re-elected attorney general).

But a row-office campaign is nothing like a run for governor.

Still, on paper, Wagner looks good.

A moderate Democrat with decent name ID, he owns a trifecta popular in much of Pennsylvania: pro-life, pro-gun, pro-labor.

He's a decorated Vietnam combat Marine. He's down-to-earth and affable. No one I know questions his integrity.

But he's not a good fundraiser and he has losses: 1993 Pittsburgh mayoral bid; 2002 primary for lieutenant governor; 2010 primary for governor; and the Pittsburgh mayoral primary just a few months ago.

There's a danger that he's viewed as a perennial candidate, no matter the office. His own party could suffer Wagner fatigue. And it's tough to run for a higher office right after losing a lower one.

When I press him on fundraising, he concedes: "I can't match up with a Tom Wolf (who's committed to spending $10 million of his own money), probably not with an Allyson Schwartz (who's expected to attract lots of national dough), and [Rob] McCord is a very good fundraiser."

But, says Wagner: "Money isn't everything. It's important to have someone who has won big in Pennsylvania, someone who knows the issues."

He does face challenges.

Many in the party say a female candidate (Schwartz, Kane or Katie McGinty) is more problematic for Corbett, who polls worse with women than with men.

Democratic primary voters tend to be more liberal than general-election voters, which could hinder a Wagner candidacy.

And the pool of usual Democratic donors already is being pulled in several directions, making fundraising all the more difficult.

But the east-west thing works in Wagner's favor - if he's in, if no one else gets in and if Pennsylvania political tradition remains, you know, unchanged.

Email: baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer

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