Scott Wagner, conservative activist and self-styled political outsider, won a special election Tuesday for the Pennsylvania state Senate as a write-in candidate, sending shock waves through the Republican establishment.
"History-making" and "breathtaking" were some of the adjectives used to describe the win by Wagner, a first-time candidate and York businessman.
In defeating the nominees of both the Republican and Democratic parties, Wagner, 58, became the first person ever to win election to the Pennsylvania Legislature as a write-in candidate.
In an exclusive interview with Newsmax the morning after the election, Wagner described "the games these guys were playing," referring to efforts by the state and local GOP to promote another candidate for the vacant seat.
After incumbent Republican state Sen. Michael Waugh announced last year he would not seek re-election in 2014, "I announced for his seat in September and locked myself in a room at home every Friday to raise money," recalled Wagner. "And I raised hundreds of thousands for the race."
On Jan. 13, however, Waugh abruptly resigned his seat to accept a six-figure job with the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex and Expo center.
Rather than leave the 28th District seat vacant until the May 20 primary, Republican Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley called a "snap" special election for March 18.
"The cost to the taxpayers for having a special election was $300,000," Lowman Henry of the Lincoln Institute told Newsmax. "That's what really upset folks in York."
What further upset many Republicans was the decision by GOP chieftains to select a nominee for the special election through the county committee.
Henry and other conservatives blame this on state Senate GOP leader Dominic Pileggi.
Henry said Pileggi "wants to control who is nominated everywhere. He and the Senate Republican Campaign Committee tried to determine nominees in as many districts as they could in '12 and guess what? Republicans suffered a net loss of three seats" in the 50-member state Senate.
"Putinizing" is how one wag characterized the tactics of Pileggi and other GOP leaders, likening their attempt to control nominees to the Russian president's takeover of Crimea.
Henry agreed with that analogy, but added: "Putin was successful in making his designs for power come true. Pileggi wasn't."
In York County, the choice of the party leadership was veteran state Rep. Ron Miller.
Wagner recalled, "They let me submit my resume to the county committee, but then it was clear they were engineering the nomination for [Miller]. Then they pressured me to withdraw and the meeting was held in a firehouse on a Thursday instead of the Saturday that had been previously announced. The whole process made me want to vomit."
Although remaining a Republican, Wagner opted to run as a write-in candidate.
"We did this the same way as my businesses," Wagner said. "Strategy, study, capitalizing it well, and executing. We studied the voting machine carefully, taking pictures of it and making sure it was user-friendly for people to write my name in. We hired four full-time staffers, five part-time staffers, and retained a respected election lawyer. And we mailed voters repeatedly, with education on how to write my name in."
York County tea party groups rallied to Wagner.
Lowman Henry noted, "The party leaders were facing someone who was one of the biggest donors to candidates such as [GOP Sen.] Pat Toomey and to conservative foundations. He could go toe-to-toe with them in fundraising."
The election was not even close — 10,595 voters wrote in Wagner's name, while Miller got 5,920 votes and Democrat Linda Small got 5,704.
Was the election a case of voter anger over the "insider" procedure of choosing a candidate rather than about any issue differences between Republicans Wagner and Miller?
"There was some of that, but there is one major difference between us," Wagner said. "He was a 16-year career politician and I'm a lifelong businessman. I'll stay in office two terms and try to do something significant. Pennsylvania needs paycheck protection to keep union leaders from using members' dues for campaign donations. And Pennsylvania has to become a right-to-work state, like Michigan.
"I own a business in Greenville, S.C. Michelin Tires is sinking $750 million to start a plant in Spartanburg, down the road. They wouldn't invest in a plant in Pennsylvania knowing it could be unionized in a few years."
What Scott Wagner will pursue in office will come later. For now, he has sent a major message to political power brokers that they take grass-roots activists for granted at their own risk.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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