Dave White has a knack for retail politics, first honed while serving as a township commissioner in the 1990s. If he could knock on the door of every Republican voter in Pennsylvania, he might be the odds-on favorite in the GOP primary for governor.
That’s not how statewide elections work. But the former Delaware County councilman can’t be ignored as the May 17 primary approaches.
Polling suggests White has remained within striking distance of better-known candidates in the sprawling Republican field. And he’s betting a few million dollars of his own money on the campaign.
Despite his wealth, White pitches himself as a plainspoken blue-collar guy, a third-generation steamfitter who skipped college and built an $85 million-a-year HVAC business. He dismisses other candidates as insiders and elitists.
He and his wife have put $4 million into the race so far, and he said they’re prepared to spend more if necessary.
“Harrisburg should be run more like a business,” White, 60, said in a phone interview this month. “I’m results-oriented.”
It’s not a revolutionary platform. But that’s kind of the point. He’s keeping it simple. He wants to fix what he says Gov. Tom Wolf has broken, and make Pennsylvania a more business-friendly state after the term-limited Democrat leaves office. He said Wolf’s March 2020 coronavirus shutdown order, and questions about whether the governor’s former cabinet supply business had received special treatment, got him thinking about running.
“That told me everything that was wrong with government,” White said.
Polls have showed White trailing former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta and State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who are seen as the front-runners. But he’s not behind by much.
Former President Donald Trump, whose support is coveted in the primary, has yet to endorse a candidate. But White could benefit from Trump’s stinging non-endorsement earlier this month, in which he called former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, another candidate in the top tier, a “coward” for not doing enough to investigate baseless claims of voter fraud.
“We’re right where we want to be,” White said.
White has been steadily building support from party activists across the state, winning regional straw polls and picking up local GOP endorsements in Bucks, Delaware, Montgomery, Butler, and Lebanon counties.
“He’s found a little bit of traction,” said Christopher Borick, a pollster at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “He seems to have a pretty powerful personal narrative: a working class Pennsylvanian who has done well for himself and now wants to apply it to politics. That’s often a story that tends to be perceived pretty well, if he can get the message out.”
White has proven effective at winning over new supporters with some face time. He comes across as a straight shooter, they say. Even some moderate Republicans and Democrats who might recoil at the mention of Mastriano, a leading election denier in the state, shrug and say White seems like a nice enough guy.
“He struck me as one of the most honest and genuine people that I’ve met in quite awhile,” said State Sen. Dan Laughlin, an Erie County Republican who presented himself as a center-right conservative when exploring a run for governor last year.
Laughlin ended up endorsing White, calling him the best Republican to face state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the presumptive Democratic nominee.
“He’s the kind of person that, if he was your neighbor, you’d be in the backyard cooking a steak and having a beer with him,” Laughlin said. “You can’t say that about all the candidates.”
Al Lindsay, chairman of the Republican Party in Butler County, north of Pittsburgh, said he was impressed by how White earned the support of his committee people.
“He really made a connection,” Lindsay said. “He’s a very down-to-earth guy.”
While his business success made him a millionaire, White has stayed in the middle-class Delaware County neighborhood where he and his wife raised their four children. He and his wife and friends frequent Stinger’s, a neighborhood bar and restaurant next to the Dollar Magic store.
White, who grew up in Springfield the ninth of 14 children, has emphasized his “outsider” status. But he has a long history in the Delaware County GOP. He was first elected as a Ridley Township commissioner in 1993. He earned a reputation as a tenacious street-level campaigner.
“He went around and hit every door,” recalled Bob Willert, a longtime Ridley commissioner. “I remember him saying, ‘I got through the whole ward once.’ Then, ‘I got through the ward again.’ He loves meeting people and talking to people. That’s just him. A lot of energy.”
In 2012, he was was appointed to the county council to fill a vacancy, and was elected to a full term the following year. White lost in 2017 as Democrats took two seats on what had long been an all-Republican county council.
His decision last year to run for governor initially caught some friends and allies by surprise. County council isn’t a typical stepping stone to the governor’s mansion.
“There were a lot of people, including myself, who said, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’” recalled John McBlain, who served with White on council. But McBlain and the county GOP soon got behind White.
Since he’s never held state or federal office, White doesn’t have much of a legislative record to pick apart. That’s one reason why supporters see him as a potentially strong nominee.
White did vote, along with other Republicans, for tax increases while on county council. While he was still in office, some critics accused him of using his political connections to help his business, DWD Mechanical Contractor, Inc., get local government contracts. The company also received about $760,000 in forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans early in the pandemic.
McSwain this month ran a TV ad about the tax hikes, calling White a “career politician who voted to raise property taxes.” He also criticized White for accepting “government bailout money,” then using his own money for his campaign.
While Republicans in Southeastern Pennsylvania tend to be more moderate than those in other parts of the state, White’s platform is unabashedly conservative, fiscally and socially. It’s a combination of traditional conservative values, mixed with MAGA-style red meat.
He talks up lower taxes, opposing abortion, and supporting gun rights, but also pushes stricter voting rules, and banning the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” in schools. (Critical race theory is a graduate-level academic field of study about how race factors into American institutions that isn’t actually taught in schools, but has become a catch-all term for how race is taught in schools).
“I’ll never let CRT be taught in our classrooms,” White says in one ad. “I believe the best way to unite and inspire all of our kids is to teach them about all that is great about America.”
In addition to support from establishment Republicans, including a group controlled by longtime power broker Bob Asher, White has received significant contributions from building trade unions. That includes $200,000 from UA Union Plumbers & Pipefitters Vote! PAC, and $100,000 from Steamfitters Local Union 420 COPE Fund.
Unions representing sprinkler fitters, firefighters, boilermakers, and electricians have also made smaller contributions to White — an unusual level of support for a Republican candidate.
“He’s always called himself a labor Republican,” McBlain said. “If he’s successful in the primary, certainly he would have more labor support than any other Republican candidate in recent memory.”
White hasn’t amplified Trump’s lies about the 2020 election being stolen to the same extent as some of his rivals. But he supports new voter ID requirements and eliminating no-excuse mail voting and ballot drop boxes. “Every fraudulent vote steals a vote from someone like you,” he says in another ad.
There is no evidence of any significant fraud in Pennsylvania’s 2020 election. In White’s home county, a single case of fraud was identified and prosecuted: A man had cast an illegal ballot for Trump in his dead mother’s name.
Asked if he believes that Joe Biden was legitimately elected president, White dodged the question.
“A lot of people don’t have confidence in our elections,” he said.