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On the ugly tone of the GOP race for governor | John Baer

Two of the three Republicans running for Pa. governor are tearing each other apart - and probably helping the incumbent and a third GOP candidate.

Paul Mango (left) and Scott Wagner shake hands after a debate in January as Laura Ellsworth looks on. These days Wagner and Mango are not so friendly.
Paul Mango (left) and Scott Wagner shake hands after a debate in January as Laura Ellsworth looks on. These days Wagner and Mango are not so friendly.Read moreKeith Srakocic / AP File

Hard to say exactly what to call the Republican primary race for governor.

But the words nasty, vacuous and damaging to democracy come to mind.

It also strikes me as a campaign in a counterintuitive moment.

As the rest of the world shows surging interest in public affairs with increased numbers of candidates at all levels and hard evidence of efforts to make politics better, Pennsylvania offers up an old-time race of noxious noise.

Sweet music to incumbent Gov. Wolf, for sure. And for one of the three GOP candidates. But for the public good? Not so much.

The race features tons of TV money for negative ads by two candidates: Paul Mango and party-endorsed Scott Wagner, both of whom seem bent on proving who is worse rather than who is better.

Wagner's ad calls Mango a "phony." Mango's ad has Wagner as an unattractive cartoon character, labeled a slumlord, a "sleazy" bail bondsman, a deadbeat dad, and more. It's both brutal and demeaning.

State GOP Chairman Val DiGiorgio called it "misleading" and urged Mango to take it down, saying it undermines party chances against Wolf in the fall.

Ah, but Mango campaign aide Matt Beynon said the ad is not only staying up, the campaign is increasing its statewide airtime "due to the overwhelmingly positive response."

It hammers Wagner on issues, in some cases, decades old, including charges he faced in his 2014 state Senate race, and prior to his GOP endorsement in February.

A few details.

Ad says Wagner was sued for renting ratty apartments in the 1980s. Wagner spokesman Andrew Romeo says that tenants sued because they were evicted, and that Wagner won the case.

Ad says Wagner, as a bail bondsman in the '80s, did a bond for an accused child predator who then "abused again." Romeo says Wagner did "his job" providing a bond for a defendant; what happened after that isn't his fault.

Ad says Wagner was "hauled into court" in 2012, ordered to pay $800K in back alimony and child support. Romeo says Wagner "always paid children support on time." Payments in question were retroactive increases following a two-year dispute over Wagner's (hefty) income during four years after his 2008 divorce, Romeo said.

No candidate wants this sort of baggage opened. It's stuff that can be made to look worse than it is. But such is life on this campaign trail. Which includes a Wagner ad attacking Mango.

It calls Mango a "phony" for using actors in ads — as if that's never done.

It says Mango, a retired health-care consultant, was "the leading advocate for Obamacare." A stretch. Mango maybe liked parts of Obamacare. In a 2009 interview with the Economist magazine, for example, Mango said President Barack Obama's health-care reforms (enacted in 2010) could help hospitals. But "the leading advocate for Obamacare?"  Pretty sure that was Obama.

And Wagner's ad calls Mango a "Wolf contractor" who snagged a $2 million government contract from the incumbent. Another stretch.

The international (27,000-employee) firm Mango worked for until last year, McKinsey & Co., did get a $1.8 million contract from the administration to study the state budget. I thought it was mostly a waste of money, and wrote that. But there's no evidence Mango had anything to do with it.

And the sole citation from Wagner's camp suggesting a link is a letter to the editor in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review from a GOP operative saying, "Mango and his global-consulting partners" got "a sweetheart deal" from Wolf.

Nothing new in campaign ads overreaching or being nasty. It often works. But it also often turns off voters. So, we'll see.

Meanwhile, a few things seem certain. The tone of this campaign makes the third GOP candidate, Pittsburgh lawyer Laura Ellsworth, who is underfunded and not engaged in attacks, sound better. It creates a narrative that helps Wolf. And it assures neither Wagner nor Mango will win this year's Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life in Pennsylvania.