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Scott Wagner leads GOP straw polls for Pennsylvania governor ahead of endorsement meeting

Wes Venteicher
| Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018, 5:15 p.m.
This year's Republican candidates for Pennsylvania governor include, from left, Scott Wagner, Mike Turzai, Paul Mango and Laura Ellsworth.
This year's Republican candidates for Pennsylvania governor include, from left, Scott Wagner, Mike Turzai, Paul Mango and Laura Ellsworth.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner is confident his top showing in internal party polling will translate to an endorsement at a party meeting this weekend, but the three other candidates say they plan to keep making their case to voters whatever the meeting's outcome.

Wagner, a state senator and business owner from York, has received 175 out of 317 votes in caucus polls held around the state to gauge candidates' viability. Wagner also had the most money in the bank among the candidates at the end of December, although he also had the most debt.

“Scott has won straw polls all across the commonwealth, including the backyard of his opponents, and Republican leaders know he is the best choice to unite the party and defeat Tom Wolf in November,” campaign spokesman Andrew Romeo said in a statement.

Party committee members from around the state could decide during a weekend meeting in Hershey to endorse one of the candidates or none of them. Voters will pick the nominee in the May 15 primary election.

Mike Turzai, the house speaker from Marshall, has received 113 votes in straw polls. The most recent round of straw polling came last weekend, when Turzai received 28 out of 61 votes in the Southwest caucus. Wagner received 30, while former health care consultant Paul Mango of Pine received two votes. Laura Ellsworth, a Pittsburgh attorney who has said she didn't want to be considered in the polling, received one.

Turzai got 23 votes from the Northwest caucus, while Wagner got 14, Mango got one and Ellsworth received none.

“Speaker Turzai has been respectful of the Republican State Committee process — he'd love to have their stamp of approval — but it's not a substitute for voters who want an opportunity to pick the next governor,” Turzai spokesman Jeff Coleman said in a statement.

The party's endorsement is less important today than it once was, Republican strategist Charlie Gerow said.

“There was a time not that long ago when if you didn't get the endorsement of the state committee you were expected to drop out, and the flow of campaign contributions came to a halt, etc.,” Gerow said. “Today that really is not the case.”

More self-funded candidates and better information technology has made it easier for candidates to persist without the party's endorsement, he said. A committee member himself, Gerow said he plans to vote against endorsing any one candidate.

Wagner was the most well-funded of the candidates at the end of last year with about $5.9 million in the bank. He was about $5.7 million in debt, mostly due to loans he made to his campaign, according to campaign finance reports.

Mango, who has given his campaign more than $6 million, ended last year with $5.5 million on hand, records show, and $1 million in debt.

Mango spokesman Matt Beynon said Mango respects the committee but hasn't held political office before and so hasn't built the relationships with committee members that Wagner and Turzai have.

“Paul is committed to continue building relationships with the state committee, but is equally committed to taking his outsider message to all Pennsylvania Republican voters,” Beynon said in a statement, adding, “Paul will have the resources necessary to take his message of bringing our jobs and our kids back to all corners of the commonwealth.”

Turzai ended last year with just more than $1 million in the bank, and Ellsworth had $417,245, records show.

“I deeply appreciate the work and commitment of our Republican state committee members, whose work in general elections has helped to strengthen both our party and our state,” Ellsworth said in a statement. “At the same time, I believe a party nomination is something for the entire party membership — our Republican voters — to decide. An open primary, without protracted spending and internal party lobbying, is what our Republican voters want and deserve.”

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

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