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Republican challenger for governor and former state Sen. Scott Wagner gives his closing remarks following a debate against Gov. Tom Wolf at Hershey Lodge on Monday, Oct. 1, 2018. (Ty Lohr/The York Daily Record)

As Election Day nears, a pugnacious Scott Wagner is crisscrossing the state in hopes the same fighting spirit that landed him an unprecedented, write-in win to the state Senate will help him erase Gov. Tom Wolf’s comfortable lead.

“This is a mission,” not a campaign, Wagner said during a recent interview with the York Daily Record.

Wagner, the Republican nominee for governor, and Wolf, the Democratic incumbent, are both from York County. Beyond that, they have no common ground, according to both candidates.

In the battle of two York County millionaires, Wagner has labeled Wolf as an elitist who is out of touch with voters. Wolf calls those claims hypocritical, as Wagner commutes in a private helicopter and luxury vehicles.

But Wagner, who owns Penn Waste, said he’s never cut his York County farming roots.

“I’m a blue-collar guy,” said Wagner, a 63-year-old husband, father and grandfather. “You know, I got dirt under my fingernails when I was a lot younger, and I’m willing to still do it today. I believe I connect with people well.”

Coming Thursday: The York Daily Record will publish a profile of Gov. Tom Wolf, who is seeking his second term. 

Wagner needs to work hard in this election to connect with Pennsylvanians. Independent polls show about 20 percent of voters don’t know him, despite spending millions on his own campaign and television ads slamming his opponent.

Debates are one of the most effective ways of reaching a statewide audience, but this race has bucked a trend of at least 30 years and offered only one. And that one, led by “Jeopardy!” host Alex Trebek, got more attention because of the moderator than the candidates.

Wagner has agreed to and asked for more debates, but Wolf has declined. The governor has said the campaign itself is a debate.

Wagner is using the same grit that helped him win in the past and enabled him to build multiple businesses, including Penn Waste.

“I started from scratch,” Wagner said, in 1985 with two used, rented garbage trucks using borrowed money. He said he was sued 10 days later by a national company.

“This has been scrapping, and block and tackling my whole life,” Wagner said.

He’s scrapping in this election to claim an underdog victory, with independent polls predicting a double-digit lead for Wolf.

Some of Wagner’s missives have gained national attention, including a recent Facebook Live video in which he said he was going to stomp all over Wolf’s face with golf spikes – a statement Wagner walked back after mounting pressure.

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Former state Sen. Scott Wagner speaks with the media following his speech to the Rotary Club of York at the Country Club of York on Wednesday, September 12, 2018. (Ty Lohr/The York Daily Record)


It attracted negative attention and headlines from nearly every state and national news outlet, including Golf Digest, which has never written about a Pennsylvania governor’s race.

Golf Digest called Wagner’s Facebook Live “bizarre” and the strangest political ad of the campaign year.

“Wagner didn’t specify whether he meant metal or soft spikes…” the Golf Digest report said.

Rolling Stone magazine, which has built a legacy covering the wild antics of rock stars and other national news, said, “Things are getting weird in the Pennsylvania governor’s race.”

This may not be the kind of attention Wagner wants, analysts say.

“When you are down double digits, you need to do virtually anything possible to shake up the election,” said Terry Madonna, a veteran pollster and political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “It certainly captured attention. The question is whether it helps you or not.”

Pennsylvanians want someone in the governor’s office who cares about them and isn’t afraid of a fight, said Wagner, who took on establishment Republicans in his 2014 write-in bid and also this election cycle.

“I don’t need this job, and I don’t need another paycheck,” Wagner said.

But he wants the job and believes what he says in his campaign stops: “It’s going to take a garbage man to clean up Pennsylvania.”


State Sen. Scott Wagner poses with his wife Tracy after he won the Republican nomination for Pennsylvania governor. (Paul Kuehnel/The York Daily Record)

Why he’s running

Wagner wants to:

  • Fix Harrisburg
  • Fix roads and bridges
  • Stop the opioid crisis
  • End school property taxes
  • Increase skilled labor
  • Be the governor “who cares about the blue-collar guy”
  • Put money into education
  • Help seniors and veterans

What he needs to do to win

It’s hard to unseat an incumbent, Madonna said.

“You have to give voters a reason to say one term is enough. Wagner has not found an issue that has resonated with voters,” Madonna said.

Where he stands on major issues


He’s called Wolf a “disaster” and says he would annually invest more than $1 billion in education. Wagner supports eliminating school property taxes.


He supports eliminating school property taxes and has expressed a wish to find savings in government.


He is anti-abortion. Wagner co-sponsored Senate Bill 3, which would’ve banned elective abortions after 20 weeks — except in medical emergencies


During a debate in the GOP primary, Wagner and the other candidates did not call for new gun restrictions for the general public. He did vote for Senate Bill 501, which would increase restrictions for individuals convicted of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence and for those with a final protection-from-abuse order against them.

Minimum wage:

He co-sponsored Senate Bill 865, which would’ve steadily raised the minimum wage to $8.75 per hour by July 1, 2020.


He supports right-to-work. Wagner is a frequent critic of labor unions.

Sexual orientation and gender identity:

He said, after making controversial comments at a town hall in Erie, that he’d veto any anti-same sex marriage bill. Wagner co-sponsored an anti-discrimination bill. A political consultant for Wagner accidentally sent a text with a meme mocking transgender people to a reporter and members of his team.

President Donald Trump:

He’s earned the president’s endorsement. Wagner once told abc27 that “Donald Trump is actually a mini-Scott Wagner.”

Environment and climate change:

He’s taken flak for various comments on climate change, including saying body heat and the earth moving closer to the sun is to blame. During the summer, he told a woman she was “young and naive” when she asked about climate change. More recently, he said the debate on human causes of climate change is settled, and he believes infrastructure improvements are needed to handle changing weather patterns and that the free market will bring cleaner energy solutions

Staff writer Dylan Segelbaum contributed to this report. 

This story comes to us through a partnership between WITF and The York Daily Record.