Hardliners win in Pennsylvania GOP races, worrying both sides
ERIE, Pa. — Republican voters in Pennsylvania, one of the nation’s hottest political battlegrounds, appear to be rallying behind two far-right gubernatorial and Senate candidates who are picking up popular anger, rising up against the party’s old guard and amplifying the myth of Donald Trump’s stolen election.
With less than a week to go until the state’s primary election on Tuesday, polls show State Senator Doug Mastriano — one of the central figures in the state in the former president’s effort to void the election of 2020 – became the undisputed favorite in the GOP race. for governor. Senate candidate Kathy Barnette, an underfunded conservative commentator who has never held public office, came as a late surprise in the contest which had been dominated by two spendthrift rivals, Dr Mehmet Oz and David McCormick.
Mr. Mastriano has made allegations of voter fraud a central part of his bid to lead a state that could be decisive in the 2024 presidential race. Ms. Barnette has a history of inflammatory remarks, including Many times calling former President Barack Obama a follower of Islam, which she says should be banned, and writing derisively about “the homosexual agenda”. The two candidates endorsed each other, forging an important alliance.
Now Republicans fear losing both races in November if primary voters adopt such candidates out of the mainstream.
Several of Mr. Mastriano’s Republican rivals have met in private conference calls in recent days in a last-minute attempt to stop him. All agree he would be a drag on the party, although Mr Mastriano has yet to come under any serious coordinated attacks. Two rivals, State Sen. Jake Corman and former Rep. Lou Barletta, held a joint event Thursday, suggesting the field may soon consolidate, at least slightly.
Democrats are harboring their own fear: that the grim political environment of 2022 could nevertheless bring to power Republicans who, in a less hostile climate, might appear ineligible.
“Like a lot of Democrats, I’m schizophrenic about it — rooting for the crazy person because it gives us the best chance of winning. But at the same time, it could give us a crazy senator or a crazy governor, or both,” said Mike Mikus, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist.
For years, Pennsylvania was one of the nation’s quintessential swing states, in which the clearest path to power was through the middle ground between the Democratic and Republican parties. This year’s open seats are due to Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican, retiring and Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, serving a term.
“Pennsylvania is not really good about this extreme on either side,” said Rob Gleason, former chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, who was one of Mr. Trump’s main supporters in the State in 2016, but now worried about Mr. Mastriano in 2022. “No matter what you say, it’s kind of an in-between type state.
In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of state, the position that oversees state elections, meaning whoever wins the governorship will oversee the administration of one of the race’s most coveted swing states. presidential election in 2024.
For months, the Senate race was seen primarily as a heavyweight fight between TV personality Dr. Oz and Mr. McCormick, the former chief executive of the world’s largest hedge fund. They and their allies have combined to spend nearly $40 million on TV ads.
Ms. Barnette, who ran for the House in 2020 in a Philadelphia suburb and lost nearly 20 percentage points, had ranked somewhere between afterthought and asterisk in the race until recently . But a Fox News poll on Tuesday showed the race was virtually three-way.
To date, Ms. Barnette’s growth has been almost entirely organic, fueled by her sharp debate performances, her appearances in conservative media and her captivating life story, which she told in her book, “Nothing to Lose, everything to gain: to be black and conservative in America”. .”
A self-described ‘by-product of rape’ when her mother was just 11, Ms Barnette says she grew up ‘on a pig farm’ in Alabama with no running water and how her success represents the genre of American dream history that is now in danger.
In the past week, Ms. Barnette has received crucial institutional support: endorsements from anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List on Tuesday and a $2 million television ad blitz funded by the Club for Growth, which airs her. of the boot message statewide.
The Club for Growth, one of the biggest spenders in Republican politics, recently fell out with Mr. Trump after running ads attacking JD Vance, the Republican Senate nominee from Ohio, even after Mr. Trump approved it. Mr. Vance won that primary and Mr. Trump endorsed Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania.
In some ways, Ms. Barnette’s candidacy is a test of whether the movement that elected Mr. Trump took on a life of its own. “MAGA does not belong to President Trump,” Ms Barnette said during a debate in April.
Both Dr Oz and Mr McCormick courted Mr Trump supporters, although it was an awkward adjustment. Dr. Oz was booed at a Trump rally, Mr. McCormick was rejected by Mr. Trump, and both faced mating questions in a state where they hadn’t recently lived full-time.
Ms. Barnette offered herself as an authentic, unfiltered version of what the Republican base wants. “Look, this time you don’t have to hold your nose and vote for the lesser of two evils,” she said during another debate.
She also made it clear that there would be no midfield pivot if she went to the fall campaign.
“There’s a long-standing tradition that we want to get a Republican coming out of the primary as a moderate — someone who’s acceptable — to the general,” she said in an interview Wednesday night during a a candidate forum in eastern Pennsylvania. “By doing this, how did it work for them? It didn’t really work very well.
In the race for governor, the presumptive Democratic nominee, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, began airing television ads last week featuring a narrator touting Mr. Mastriano’s conservative credentials: “If Mastriano wins, it’s a victory for what Donald Trump stands for. Mr. Trump did not endorse this competition.
On Tuesday, Mr. Mastriano campaigned in Erie, Pa., with Jenna Ellis, the former co-lawyer for the Trump campaign’s efforts to nullify the 2020 election.
“Doug Mastriano, I like to say, is the Donald Trump of Pennsylvania,” Ms. Ellis said.
Mr. Mastriano was a key figure in Mr. Trump’s effort to overturn the results in Pennsylvania, a state he lost by 81,000 votes. As a freshman senator, he held a hearing in November 2020 with Ms. Ellis and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, visited the White House shortly thereafter and remained in close contact with the team. of Trump.
He posted an event on Facebook offering bus rides in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, and his campaign reported spend at least $3,000 on bus charters. But he claimed he left before the protest turned violent. In Erie, Mr. Mastriano, whose campaign did not respond to requests for comment, defended the rally.
“Is it like, God have mercy on your soul if you dare to go exercise your First Amendment freedom to go to DC on January 6th?” said M. Mastriano. “You did nothing wrong.”
Andy Reilly, one of three members of the Republican National Committee from Pennsylvania, is among those quietly arguing to rally Republicans around an alternative to Mr. Mastriano. Mr Reilly, who did not support the race, said the Shapiro campaign ads had “raised concerns” and sparked discussion.
“The fact that Democrats are running pro-Mastriano ads tells us they think he would be the weaker candidate,” said Charlie Gerow, a longtime Republican agent from Pennsylvania who is running for governor and who votes with a single digit.
Interviewed while at a bakery in Erie, Mr. Barletta, a former congressman who defeated a Democratic incumbent in 2010, called himself the strongest alternative to Mastriano.
“It was myself and Doug Mastriano” at the top of every poll, Barletta said. “Now people have to make a decision, and a lot of those undecided people have to look at who they think has a better chance of beating Josh Shapiro.”
Bill McSwain, who served as a U.S. attorney for eastern Pennsylvania during the Trump administration, is also a candidate and has spent as much on television as the rest of the field combined, according to AdImpact, a media monitoring firm. But he is also the only candidate in the race to be attacked by Mr. Trump.
“Do not vote for Bill McSwain, a coward, who has let our country down,” Mr. Trump said last month in a statement attacking Mr. McSwain for not emphasizing Mr. Trump in Pennsylvania.
Mr Gleason, the party’s former chairman, backs Mr McSwain anyway, fearing Mr Mastriano could lose a general election. “It would be toxic,” he said.
Rep. Brendan Boyle, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, said he was approached in the House this week by colleagues from other states who were happy Republicans could choose two of these far-right candidates. But he said he still remembered 2010, when seemingly ineligible Tea Party Republicans won, and then 2016, when Mr Trump won Pennsylvania and the presidency.
“I should be happy that the Republicans seem to be on the verge of blowing up those two races,” Boyle said. But, he added, “I am very nervous that, oh surprise, two Republican extremists are elected governor and senator”.
For her part, Ms Barnette, appearing on the podcast of former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon this week, dismissed Republican concerns that she was “too MAGA” to win in November.
“Do these people have a crystal ball?” she asked. “Are they Jesus incarnate? How do they know?
Tracey Tuly contributed reporting from Newtown, Pennsylvania.