On stage Wednesday night in Carlisle, Pa. were:
- Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, of Centre County
- Sen. Scott Martin, of Lancaster County
- Charlie Gerow, a conservative activist and former lobbyist, of Cumberland County
- Jason Richey, an Allegheny County attorney
- Bill McSwain, a veteran and former federal prosecutor, of Chester County
- Guy Ciarrocchi, a business advocate and former legislative staffer, of Chester County
- Dave White, a tradesmen and former Delaware County councilmember
- County Commissioner Joe Gale, of Montgomery County
- Jason Monn, a business owner and former mayor in Erie County
- Nche Zama, a Monroe County heart surgeon
- Melissa Hart, a former U.S. representative from Allegheny County
- John Ventre, former UPS executive from Westmoreland County
- Shawn Berger, a Carbon County business owner
The two notable absences were Lou Barletta, a former congressman and mayor of Hazleton, as well state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin), a controversial conservative lawmaker who is expected to declare this weekend.
In a statement, Barletta said he has already agreed to a debate in February, after candidates begin to qualify to be on the ballot and the field is set.
As the chief executive, the governor oversees tens of thousands of state employees, from State Troopers and DMV clerks to public benefits caseworkers and environmental permit reviewers.
The governor will also present a yearly budget blueprint that kicks off negotiations with the General Assembly on how to spend tens of billions in state tax revenue. And a wave of their pen can either approve or reject legislation changing how the state treats everything from abortion and guns to liquor sales and marijuana.
The GOP candidates are vying to replace Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who will leave office in January 2023 after serving the constitutional maximum of two, four-year terms.
After 90 minutes of spirited, quick moving debate, a few things were clear about the GOP candidates:
They all want lower taxes (and less regulations)
The debate opened with a simple question: How would the candidates increase population and economic growth in the commonwealth.
Down the line, all the candidates had a similar prescription: Cut taxes and slash regulations.
Richey, whose campaign website includes a policy-heavy, 12-point contract with Pennsylvania, called for the state to eliminate its income tax.
“I want the voters to hold me accountable that I will do what I say I will do,” Richey said.
Corman pointed to his work to pass a natural gas tax credit last year that has brought a multi-billion dollar petrochemical plant to northeastern Pennsylvania.
Such an achievement, Corman argued, is what a governor with experience in the Legislature could consistently recreate.
With “a governor who can work with the Legislature, and respects the Legislature, the sky’s the limit for Pennsylvania,” Corman said.
Former prosecutor McSwain linked economic growth to his strength — public safety — arguing that businesses needed low crime to succeed.
“While I was U.S. attorney, I protected the communities and it’s businesses, by putting rioters, looters, and arsonists in jail,” McSwain said.
Gerow added a further corollary: the state should root out public corruption to ensure businesses don’t have to “pay to play” in Pennsylvania.
They all support school choice
After the economy, most of the candidates on stage Wednesday portrayed expanding students’ options to attend charter schools or private schools as a top priority.
“We have to prevent our children from being used as pawns for bureaucracy that has no interest in their welfare, but only interest in pleasing big unions and big education,” Hart said.
The focus is perhaps unsurprising. One pro-school choice billionaire, Jeff Yass, has already put $20 million into a campaign account to aid a candidate who will back alternatives to public education as governor.
Throughout the debate, the candidates took turns trumpeting their commitment to the cause.
“We’ve been trying to pass school choice for the past 25 years and haven’t gotten it done,” White said. “I will be the governor that will sign a school choice bill on my desk the first year.”
As for schools switching to online classes amid rising COVID-19 cases this week, most offered unqualified support for keeping students in-person.
“Schools need to be open, kids need to be in them, they need to be safe,” Gerow said.
Monn, Hart, and Corman instead said that decision should remain up to districts.
(Nearly) everyone wants to say they are anti-establishment
There was also a clear divide on stage between those with experience in Harrisburg, and those who rose to prominence inside the Capitol.
“I don’t have any baggage, I don‘t have any special interests,” surgeon Zama said.
Gale, who’s frequently bashed his own party’s establishment during the campaign, was the most vocal critic of the status quo. He repeated his attack that no Republican who supported Pennsylvania’s vote-by-mail law, Act 77, should run as a Republican in 2022.
He also promised to, as governor, back primary challengers to Republicans who stood in his way.
“I will be a pit bull in Harrisburg to call them out, and get the job done,” Gale said.
Ventre, likewise, chalked up Harrisburg’s failures to Republicans’ willingness to compromise with Democrats.
“The person who is going to win this election is going to be a Tea Party patriot,” Ventre said, adding: “I’m not all that interested in negotiating with the left.”
Some of these outsider candidates also provided the night’s most outlandish statements.
Ventre suggested that schools should teach creationism, or the idea that God created the Earth. Gale meanwhile implied that President Joe Biden only won because of voter fraud, a claim with no factual basis.
Gale also referred to former Secretary of Health Rachel Levine, who is transgender, by her name from before she transitioned — a move which the transgender community views as insulting and offensive.
But other outsider candidates brought a different tone, and instead offered themselves as peacemakers for the state’s shattered electorate.
“The eagle only flies because it has a left wing and right wing,” Zama said.
Added Monn: “I employ 20 to 25 teenagers. If I can get those people to work together, I can get a lot of people to work together.”
Whoever wins the primary will likely face Democratic attorney general Josh Shapiro in the November general election. The primary is currently scheduled for May 17.
Stephen Caruso is a reporter at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.