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The Jack Wagner factor

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Saturday, March 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
 

HARRISBURG

Don't discount Jack Wagner in the Democrats' primary for governor. It's a long shot to be sure. But here is a scenario whereby he could win.

The former twice-elected auditor general of Beechview was a late entry into the contest, joining six other candidates seeking the nomination in the May 20 primary. His success is based largely on being the only Western Pennsylvania candidate. The others live from Harrisburg to the Philly suburbs.

In a contest where the candidates, for the most part, stand for roughly the same thing, Wagner is pro-life. That might appeal to Roman Catholic voters in the Pittsburgh area.

The complication in the Wagner-can-win theory is that since he decided to roll the dice, Tom Wolf, the York multimillionaire, has taken off in the polls. But it's early. And the numbers could easily shift as the presumed front-runners starting the year, U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz and state Treasurer Rob McCord, both of Montgomery County, hit the airwaves.

Don't, however, count on Wagner to do much of that; he's never been able to raise much money and as he puts it, “I'm not a wealthy man” like Wolf, whose campaign is largely self-funded.

But there's the possibility Wolf's lead could grow and leave the field, including Wagner, in the dust.

Wagner also has residual name recognition from four statewide races. He won two of those races and lost for lieutenant governor in 2002 and for governor in 2010. He lost in a primary for Pittsburgh mayor last year.

Former Democrat Gov. Robert P. Casey proved that determination combined with the right skill set can land one in the governor's mansion. Casey, father of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, was referred to as the “three time loss from Holy Cross.” It took the elder Casey four tries to win the governor's race, finally doing so in 1986.

Wagner was the younger Casey's running mate in 2002 but he lost narrowly to Catherine Baker Knoll, who became lieutenant governor that fall.

Wagner also had eight years of “free media” as state auditor general. In his 2008 re-election, Wagner led all other Democrat candidates on the ballot, garnering 3.3 million votes.

Assuming Schwartz, McCord or Katie McGinty, of Chester County, catch up with Wolf, the final results could look more like a lieutenant governor's race with the winner coming out with a plurality and potentially a few points separating the candidates. John Hanger, of Harrisburg, as the only candidate favoring legalization of marijuana, could further cut into their totals.

Wagner, with name recognition and connections to veterans groups as a decorated Vietnam vet, needs to make dents in the East while racking up big numbers in the West.

If Wagner loses, it could be his last hoorah. If he wins, he might be the Democrat candidate whom GOP Gov. Tom Corbett's team would least like to see in the fall.

Brad Bumsted is Trib Total Media's state Capitol reporter (717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com).

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