Across Central Pennsylvania – one of the most Republican-heavy parts of the state – thousands of voters are receiving a mailer attacking dozens of GOP elected officials. The ad, which is done up like an Old West “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster, calls out “Harrisburg’s Least Wanted,” with pictures of 28 Republican state senators and House members.
But what seems like Democratic campaign fodder actually comes from a far-right group called the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania – A PAC that was long helmed by its now-chairman emeritus John Kennedy, who is also chairing Republican state Sen. Scott Wagner’s campaign for governor.
The sheer number of Republicans targeted in the mailer has reportedly sparked a firestorm within the party. Nearly every Southeastern PA legislator and many other suburban reps across the state were tarred in the mailer, which reads in part: “Just say NO to these Republican turncoats when they come begging for money and support.”
State Rep. Mark Mustio, who also chairs the PA House Republican Campaign Committee, called the attacks “unconscionable” given that Wagner had so recently sought to unify the GOP around his bid to unseat incumbent Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
“I think it's unconscionable that right after Wagner gets the endorsement that this person who is involved with his campaign gets involved in attacking other Republicans,” he said. “It violates Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment, that thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.”
A screenshot of the recent CAP mailer. Click for high resolution.
While Kennedy did not immediately respond to press calls, Wagner’s campaign disavowed the mailers, downplaying the shared leadership between the gubernatorial campaign and Citizens Alliance.
"Scott had no role in these ads and believes any effort to divide us is an effort to defeat us. We need to be unified and we need to do everything we can to protect and grow our majorities to implement our conservative agenda,” wrote Wagner spokesperson Andrew Romeo. “Scott and the Pennsylvania GOP are working shoulder-to-shoulder to ensure we defeat Tom Wolf and secure down-ballot wins for the party in November.”
But Mustio, who said he had never been targeted by the group, said few other Republicans shared the campaign’s breezy sentiments.
“I sent Wagner a text when I saw the ads last week...and I said, ‘You own this,’” Mustio recounted. “That’s the perception. There isn’t one person I talked to in the party that doesn’t think they’re one and the same. The chair of both organizations is the same individual.”
The ads specifically take aim at Republicans who voted against a bill that sought to bar the automatic deduction of union dues from state employees’ paychecks. State Sen. John Rafferty, one of the legislators named in the mailer, said that the legislation, a major plank for far-right groups opposed to labor unions, would have impacted emergency responders.
“The police and firefighters were against that bill and I couldn’t get them exempted, so I voted no,” he said. “It’s a shame that an organization that touts itself as being righteous also goes against our police and firefighters.”
The political calculus behind the ads was not immediately clear. Citizens Alliance has a history of supporting more conservative Republican candidates against more moderate incumbents, but some of those targeted in the recent ad include legislators who are retiring, like state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf. Others face no obvious primary challenger, like state Rep. Martina White.
Mustio said he believed the intra-party conflict only weakens the PA GOP in what many think will be a challenging electoral year. He blamed the group for encouraging a bitter primary fight between an establishment Republican and a Tea Party candidate in the 161st House District in 2015, a seat later ceded to Democrat Leanne Krueger-Braneky.
“I think they are very effective at electing Democrats. They will attack moderate Republicans, who come from Democrat-heavy districts where it takes a moderate Republican to win,” he said. “This type of action does nothing other than accelerate the path to political minority. It creates disunity. If we wind up in the minority, it will be wrapped around CAP and Wagner’s neck.”
PA GOP chair Val Digiorgio offered the following statement, when asked if the state party supported the mailers.
“With a unified and aggressive Democrat party that uses the Supreme Court and other instruments of government as political weapons, now is not the time for attacks from those who deem themselves purer than other Republicans," he said. "CAP and their attacks on Republican groups will do nothing but ensure the liberals like (Gov.) Tom Wolf and (U.S. Sen.) Bob Casey call the shots in government."