HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — The simmering feud between establishment Republicans in Pennsylvania and the party's wing of anti-establishment conservatives is exploding into the public in a way it rarely, if ever, has. And it is doing so at a time when Republicans are at risk of losing the control of Harrisburg they have enjoyed for three years.
Last month, House Speaker Sam Smith penned an angry public letter chastising a political group that raises money and attacks sitting Republican lawmakers who its leaders view as insufficiently willing to break the "iron triangle of career politicians, bureaucrats and big government lobbyists."
This month, the Republican Party, including top GOP senators, have rolled up their sleeves in a bruising airwave fight to try to prevent a key financial supporter of that group from winning a Senate seat in a March 18 special election.
"The establishment of the Republican Party has never faced a sustained and ... credible threat from anti-establishment conservatives," said Leo Knepper, executive director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania and the target of Smith's letter. "A lot of the limited government, fiscally conservative taxpayer groups that have some sustained level of activity is really putting pressure on them."
Smith, R-Jefferson, sent the letter after Knepper told a reporter that Smith's decision to retire from the House this year was driven by fear of a primary challenger supported by Citizens Alliance. Smith had told reporters that he would not run for a 15th term because he had lost the fire to keep managing the often unruly and parochial 203-member House of Representatives.
Knepper, he wrote, was putting on a "tacky display of arrogance" and slapped Citizens Alliance as "funded by anonymous millionaires who want government to do what they want."
"Your purist views are like those dictators possess," Smith wrote to Knepper. "To the anonymous rich guys hiding under your cap, please note — this is a republic where no one dictates and governing requires debate, understanding and respect for the other points of view brought to the arena of ideas."
A write-in candidate in the special election for the York County-based 28th Senate District is Scott Wagner, owner of trash hauler Penn Waste Inc. who has donated heavily to conservative candidates and causes and is a critic of Gov. Tom Corbett, a fellow Republican.
The other candidates are eight-term state Rep. Ron Miller, the GOP's nominee, and Democrat Linda Small.
The March 18 special election will decide who will fill the seat until Nov. 30. Regardless of that outcome, there will be a May 20 primary and Nov. 4 general election to decide who will serve the next four-year term that begins in January.
The ugly public fight arrives as Corbett is facing lackluster public opinion polls in his quest for a second term and the Senate Republicans must defend six of their seven seats in increasingly liberal southeastern Pennsylvania as they protect their narrowest majority in two decades.
In recent days, Wagner was targeted by a TV ad sponsored by the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, whose permanent chairman is Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. The attack ad starts with a narrator saying, "Millionaire Scott Wagner is spewing all kinds of garbage again, trying to buy another election" and ends, "With millionaire trash man Scott Wagner, something doesn't smell right."
It is viewed by political operatives as a sign that Senate Republican leaders fear Wagner will win. Meanwhile, Republican stalwart and former Gov. Tom Ridge headlined a fundraiser for Miller this month.
Scarnati did not respond to requests for comment. But the decision to attack Wagner does not sit well with every Republican senator.
Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, who won his office in 2006 by defeating Senate President Pro Tempore Robert C. Jubelirer in the anti-pay-raise wave, said the Senate Republican Campaign Committee should not be getting involved in a race between Republicans or engaging in negative campaign tactics.
"I don't like that, I don't do it myself, I don't support it," Eichelberger said.
Wagner responded with a TV ad that continued his theme of running against a political class that fattens itself on lavish perks and purportedly orchestrated Miller's candidacy and the special election in a bid to derail his chances of winning.
Pennsylvania's Republican Party chairman, Rob Gleason, dismissed any suggestion of friction underneath the Republican Party's "big tent" and said the party will unite behind Wagner if he wins.
"I know Scott Wagner. I've met with Scott Wagner," Gleason said. "He's a fine guy."
In an interview, Wagner acknowledged that he knew Republican senators were uncomfortable with his candidacy, given his history of helping to target GOP incumbents. But he did not sound ready to embrace the establishment if he wins.
"The Republican Party is now attacking me, a successful business owner," Wagner said. "What's wrong with this picture?"
Bob Wilson, the chairman of the York County Republican Party, insisted there had been no conspiracy against Wagner's candidacy. Still, he questioned why the party would back someone who has a history of trying to defeat sitting Republican legislators.
"It's a big-city election-type of campaign that's taking place here," Wilson said. "It's different from what York countians are used to. Do I like it? No, I don't like it."
Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/timelywriter.