PA special election for Senate seat is must-see political theater

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

Eleven letters and allegations of political maneuvering have turned Tuesday’s special election for a York County state Senate seat into must-see political theater.

Three candidates are vying to fill a vacancy left by former state Sen. Mike Waugh’s retirement, including state Rep. Ron Miller, R-York, and Democratic hopeful Linda Small of New Freedom. But it’s Republican and Tea Party activist Scott Wagner who has stirred up the race through a write-in campaign whose long-shot odds might be mitigated by the money the wealthy businessman has pumped into the contest.

The intra-party battle in the GOP has opened the door for Small, a point not lost upon Miller, a state representative first elected in 1998.

“I think the Democrats are just loving it,” Miller said.

DECISION TIME: A York County state Senate seat is up for grabs, and Democrats believe an intra-party GOP squabble gives them a shot in Tuesday’s special election.

As the Republicans throw punches in television ads, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said his party isn’t just sitting back. With Democrats usually drawing about 35 percent of the vote in the 28th Senatorial District, Costa sees an opportunity should Republicans split the vote, he said.

A Democratic victory, Costa said, would send a strong message heading into the fall elections that voters are dissatisfied with the direction of Pennsylvania’s government. It would also close the gap in the Senate to 26 Republicans and 24 Democrats, giving the minority more clout in this year’s budget debate, Costa said.

“I think it’s a win-win for us,” he said.

The newly drawn 28th Senatorial District spans a large chunk of southern and central York County. Waugh was the senator since 1999.

Voter registration statistics show the GOP has an advantage in the race to finish Waugh’s term. There are 75,000 registered Republicans in the district, compared to 62,555 Democrats. Turnout could be low on Tuesday — Miller imagines something like 15 percent would be good — meaning every vote could be crucial to candidates.

The race has been particularly ugly between the two Republican candidates. Wagner did not return a message seeking comment, but has alleged that GOP leaders in Harrisburg have conspired against him to get Miller into the post.

Waugh announced Jan. 13 he was retiring immediately to take a job as executive director of the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex. Later the same day, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley set a special election for Tuesday. Not long after, Miller announced his candidacy for the seat.

“What happened in a span of 36 hours is a blatant example of backroom political maneuvering at its worst,” Wagner said then. “The timing of it all is questionable at best.”

Miller said he wasn’t recruited to run and earned the county party’s nomination, just as Wagner had a chance to do. Wagner pulled his name out of contention, instead opting to run as a write-in candidate.

Miller has chided Wagner, saying he’s willing to hand over the election to a Democrat if he can’t win it.

“I’m not worried,” Miller said, “but it’s a legitimate reason to continue to run very, very hard.”

Small doesn’t like that the “horse race” has dominated the narrative of the special election. She prefers to talk about issues such as job creation, she said. Her platform includes raising the minimum wage and beefing up education funding by cutting corporate tax breaks.

She’s happy to let Republicans empty their wallets to fill mailboxes with campaign literature.

“Clearly, the Republicans are doing what they’re doing. That’s their game,” Small said. “My game is to say, ‘Here’s some solutions.’”

Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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