The Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial primary has taken an early negative turn, with the party chairman declaring one campaign ad too low a blow even for modern politics.
Paul Mango's television ad, airing in markets across the state, depicts State Sen. Scott Wagner of York County as a slumlord, polluter, "sleazy bail bondsman," and lousy father. The Wagner campaign said the attacks were false, and shot back with its own ad saying Mango was "losing, liberal, and desperate."
"This is tough, but the campaign has been tough so far," said Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based GOP strategist who isn't affiliated with any of the candidates. He noted that Wagner last year appeared to diminish Mango's military service, saying he had gotten a "free education" at West Point.
But Pennsylvania GOP Chairman Val DiGiorgio on Friday called on Mango to take down the ad, which he said would only undermine the party's chances of defeating Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, in November. The state GOP endorsed Wagner in February.
Perhaps more surprising than the content of the ad was its timing: There is still more than a month to go before the May 15 primary election, and thus plenty of time for the race to get uglier. Mango's 30-second ad promised as much, teasing a forthcoming spot called "Violent Wagner."
"I was a little bit surprised that both campaigns went negative, to me, fairly early in the game," said Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican consultant. He noted that neither candidate is well-known by voters, "so they still have room to grow with people by talking about who they are and what they stand for and what they're doing."
Both Mango, a retired Pittsburgh-area health-care consultant, and Wagner, owner of trash-hauling and trucking firms, have contributed or lent millions of dollars to their campaigns. The third GOP candidate, Pittsburgh-area attorney Laura Ellsworth, hasn't paid for television ads.
Wolf leads each Republican in hypothetical head-to-head matches, according to a March Franklin and Marshall poll, but large percentages are still undecided.
Wagner had $6.2 million in his campaign account as of April 3, records show, and Mango had $3.3 million.
Previously, the race featured more traditional fights over ideological purity. Wagner has knocked Mango for failing to vote in a number of GOP primaries over the years and as flip-flopping on a proposal to eliminate property taxes. Mango has positioned himself as a "pro-family" candidate and accused Wagner of promoting transgender-friendly policies in public accommodations.
But the race entered a new phase with Mango's ad. It features a cartoon-like character resembling Wagner who seems more qualified for prison than the governor's office. The ad's most striking assertion: that Wagner was a "deadbeat dad" who had been "hauled into court" and ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in back alimony and child support.
The ad cited Dauphin County court records, which weren't immediately available Friday. Wagner's campaign said the claim was a lie and that Wagner had made all payments on time.
Mango's campaign said it decided to run the ad after Wagner aired one accusing Mango of supporting Obamacare during his consulting career, outsourcing jobs, and winning a no-bid contract from the Wolf administration.
Mango "knows Scott is the true conservative candidate in this race, and because of that, he is resorting to smearing Scott's character rather than talking about his own record or policies," Wagner spokesman Andrew Romeo said.
To some observers, its tone recalled the famous 1986 campaign ad by Bob Casey Sr. that described Lt. Gov. Bill Scranton III as a "disciple" of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who is credited with introducing the West to transcendental meditation. The ad, titled "The Guru," helped sink Scranton's candidacy for governor.
Gerow, the Harrisburg-based consultant, said Mango's ad was as tough as he'd seen in Pennsylvania politics.
But, he added, "I think this has been bubbling beneath the surface for some time."
Nicholas said the negative campaigning could create an opening for Ellsworth to go on the air with an ad distancing herself from the squabbling and addressing the issues head-on.