A day after surprising results in a special state Senate election, political watchers in York County and beyond were still trying to wrap their heads around the unprecedented write-in victory of conservative Republican Scott Wagner.

The businessman upset party nominee Rep. Ron Miller and is presumed to be the state's first write-in candidate to win a Senate seat. Local party chairman Bob Wilson said the eyes of the tea party movement nationwide were on York County on Tuesday.

"This was a case study of what to do and what not to do," said Wilson. "People are going to analyze this election for years to come and say, 'Here's the could've, should've, would've.'"

A sleepless night Tuesday afforded Wilson such an opportunity, and he reflected on the campaign strategies that failed the county and state Republican mainstay who tried to oppose Wagner.

"If we could have gone back in time ... the ads from the (Senate Republican Campaign Committee) crossed the line, to be quite honest," he said.

The group launched campaigns slamming Wagner for an environmental paperwork oversight at his business, Penn Waste, showing an image of Wagner's face superimposed with a pool of dead fish — despite no fish having been harmed as a result of the paperwork not being filed on time. The group also aired commercials and sent mailers featuring a 94-year-old York widow whom Wagner's company sued because she didn't pay her trash bill.


"They were way too negative," Wilson said. "Any time you utilize a face or a person, it was just too much for York countians. I think York countians just won't stand for that — and they didn't, quite obviously."

Different campaigns: Wilson said Miller ran a more traditional campaign, compared to Wagner's "big-city" style politics.

While the typical pre-Wagner Senate race in York County cost about $70,000, the wealthy businessman pledged to spend hundreds of thousands. Though there are still primary and general elections ahead, the race has already broken local spending records.

Wagner seemed to be everywhere — on billboards, in commercials, and in the mail — while Miller was more accustomed to the "campaign of old," Wilson said.

"The campaigns of old were the ones where the candidates would raise enough money to do two or three mailers, buy some yard signs ... and bumper stickers, go visit some Girl Scouts, and shake some hands and kiss some babies," he said.

The state GOP tried combatting Wagner's spending, but it didn't work, Wilson said.

"Politics have changed with this election," he said. "Even if you were to have used a different candidate, I think the outcome would've been the same regardless. We lost."

Because Wagner's grander style of campaigning worked, it's likely to be adopted and change campaigning in York forever, he said.

"This was the winning model," he said. "I think people will take that and utilize that as a way of doing things in the future."

What happened: Wagner's monetary resources furthered his campaign, and the efforts on the part of the party to discredit him appear to have had some backlash effect, said Christopher Borick, a non-partisan analyst, professor of political science, and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.

Though it's "enormously difficult" to win a write-in campaign beyond the level of a local school board or township board of supervisors race, the state Republican party efforts could have "angered folks to think they were being pushed in a direction and drew more attention to Wagner," he said.

Political analyst G. Terry Madonna said the low turnout (less than 14 percent) and Wagner's message of change worked together for his win.

Madonna said his research at Franklin and Marshall College has shown voters have a record level of distrust for politicians today. While Miller was established in the party, Wagner was seen as an outsider who vowed to shake things up in Harrisburg, Madonna said.

Another fight: But the odds of Wagner's pulling off some great changes are even slimmer than his winning a write-in campaign, Madonna said.

"It's going to be very interesting, the culture shock he has when he gets into Harrisburg," he said. "The state Senate is not a place for rapid change, where you go there and overnight you produce some change. Some would argue it's glacial. The change that (Wagner) wants to bring about is butting heads with Republicans who know how to run the Senate and have been in control of the chamber since 1980 except for one 14-month period in the early '90s."

Others, including York County Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon/Dauphin/York, were elected to "shake things up" after legislators voted themselves a controversial pay raise years ago, but those new legislators haven't accomplished their promised reforms, Madonna said.

"You can't issue orders," Madonna said. "You're one of 50, and you're (number) 50 (in seniority)."

Taking office: York County elections officials are expected to certify the results of the election on Monday.

Wagner, who will fill the seat through the end of November, can't be sworn in until after his campaign finance reports are submitted through March 28, said Ron Ruman, press secretary for the Department of State.

The state will certify the election no earlier than March 29, he said.

After that, Wagner is at the mercy of Senate leadership, some of whom worked against his campaign.

"The chamber can act as they see fit," Ruman said. "They'll swear him in when they think they should."

— Reach Christina Kauffman at ckauffman@yorkdispatch.com.