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Steve Bannon weighs in on Pennsylvania's GOP race for governor

Wes Venteicher
| Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017, 6:57 p.m.
Steve Bannon’s endorsement for Scott Wagner, given during a speech Sunday in St. Louis, came just days before political outsider Roy Moore rolled to a GOP primary election win Tuesday in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race.
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Steve Bannon’s endorsement for Scott Wagner, given during a speech Sunday in St. Louis, came just days before political outsider Roy Moore rolled to a GOP primary election win Tuesday in Alabama’s U.S. Senate race.
Scott Wagner
Christian Tyler Randolph | Tribune-Review
Scott Wagner

Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner's campaign said Wednesday that a recent endorsement from former White House adviser Steve Bannon boosts Wagner's profile as the political outsider in the race.

Wagner, a businessman and first-term state senator who has praised President Trump as a visionary, is betting the same political forces that carried Trump to office will propel his campaign here.

“Steve Bannon's comments simply confirm that (Wagner) is the conservative outsider in the campaign to be Pennsylvania's governor,” Wagner spokesman Jason High said in a statement.

The campaign of Wagner opponent Paul Mango, however, insisted that Mango is the true outsider in the GOP race.

“Scott Wagner has been a fixture on the political scene for years, so it's no wonder he would have higher name recognition at this very early stage,” Mango campaign adviser Matthew Beynon said in an email. “Paul Mango is a political outsider looking to take his military and business experience to shake up Harrisburg.”

Bannon's endorsement for Wagner, given during a speech Sunday in St. Louis, came just days before political outsider Roy Moore rolled to a GOP primary election win Tuesday in Alabama's U.S. Senate race. Bannon campaigned for Moore and cast Moore's win over U.S. Sen. Luther Strange as a populist victory. Strange, appointed in February to fill the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, was backed by Trump and the Republican establishment in Washington, D.C.

Two days before receiving Bannon's endorsement, Wagner released internal polling numbers to supporters that showed him up over Pine's Mango, a former health care consultant who graduated from West Point and served as an 82nd Airborne paratrooper.

Political analysts cautioned that the preliminary polling numbers, which were only partially released by Wagner's campaign, likely don't have much bearing on how people will vote in 2018.

Wagner runs a waste-hauling company he founded.

Mango was a director of health care advisory firm McKinsey & Co.

Both promote their blue-collar work experiences as young men: Wagner shoveled manure on a farm where he grew up; Mango worked as a dishwasher, produce stocker and bowling alley scorekeeper in high school.

It remains unknown how deep Pennsylvania's support will run for political outsiders next year, said Chris Borick, a professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

“I think Wagner's hoping that the dynamics that were in place in 2016 remain in place in 2018, where outsiders and disrupters are seen as the flavor of the day,” Borick said. “But the big question is, will that same electoral environment be in place next year and will Trump's approach translate to other people?”

Bannon endorsed Wagner during a speech to the Phyllis Schlafly Eagles, according to the Associated Press. The group is a spinoff of a conservative think tank founded by Schlafly, a conservative crusader who supported Barry Goldwater's campaign in the 1960s and fought against feminists and the push for an Equal Rights Amendment. Schlafly died last year.

Bannon likened Wagner's campaign to Schlafly's efforts.

“From what she did back in the early 1960s to what Scott Wagner is going to do in Pennsylvania, it's an unbroken chain,” Bannon said. “He's fighting the exact same kingmakers.”

Bannon said populist conservatives need to overcome not only Democrats but establishment Republicans.

Borick, the political science professor, said endorsements are traditionally overvalued but sometimes carry weight. Among voters with populist beliefs and conservative ideologies, Bannon has “rock star” status, Borick said.

“For more moderate Republicans, for more traditionally ideologically conservative Republicans, there are concerns about Bannon's approach to politics and that therefore there's some baggage if you are in that group,” he added.

Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist based in Harrisburg, said Bannon's support could be meaningful if it goes beyond last weekend's statements.

“If he's going to use his ability to publicize the positions and candidacy of Sen. Wagner, that would have an impact, both positive and negative,” Gerow said. “But the mere fact that Steve Bannon is for him I don't think is moving a lot of voters.”

Wagner and Mango are the only Republican candidates who have formally announced their candidacies. House Speaker Mike Turzai has said he is considering a run, as has Laura Ellsworth, a Pittsburgh attorney.

Wes Venteicher is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5676, or via Twitter @wesventeicher.

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