The aftershocks of Tuesday’s big primaries are still rumbling across Pennsylvania, but one impact is already clear: Republican voters’ choice of Doug Mastriano in the governor’s race is giving the GOP fits.
Conversations with Republican strategists, donors and lobbyists in and outside of Pennsylvania in recent days reveal a party seething with anxiety, dissension and score-settling over Mastriano’s nomination.
In the run-up to Tuesday night, Republicans openly used words and phrases such as “suicide mission,” “disaster” and “voyage of the Titanic” to convey just what a catastrophe they believed his candidacy will be for their party.
An adviser to several Republican governors, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said there was wide displeasure with the outcome, calling him unelectable. The Mastriano campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Some in Pennsylvania blame Jeff Yass, a billionaire options trader and the state’s most powerful donor, for sticking with Bill McSwain for governor despite former President Donald Trump’s blistering anti-endorsement. Others point the finger at Lawrence Tabas, the state party chair, for failing to clear the field. Still others say Trump should have stayed out of the race altogether instead of endorsing Mastriano. Tabas did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
An eleventh-hour effort to stop Mastriano failed when both McSwain and Dave White, a self-funding candidate who spent at least $5 million of his own money, refused to drop out and support former Rep. Lou Barletta, whose supporters insisted he was the more viable option.
Many Republicans thought that idea was futile and far too late. Several said a serious effort to prevent Mastriano from winning should have begun last summer, while others said Yass and his allies could have dropped McSwain sooner.
“Had they kept their powder dry, they could have seen the lay of the land, when Mastriano’s lead was 8-10, and backed Barletta,” said Sam Katz, a former Republican candidate for governor who now backs Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee.
“Had they spent $5 million in three weeks, they might have forced Trump to make a different choice and changed everything,” Katz said.
Mastriano had amassed 44% of the vote as of Thursday morning.
Matthew Brouillette, head of Commonwealth Partners, which bankrolled McSwain’s campaign, noted that his organization also backed Carrie DelRosso, who won the lieutenant governor’s race. He said the criticism was coming largely from “consultants and rent-seekers who don’t like us as we disrupt their gravy trains.”
Ties to Jan. 6 and QAnon
Mastriano’s vulnerabilities are legion, GOP operatives lament.
The state senator and retired U.S. Army colonel has taken a hard line on abortion, which he has said should be illegal under all circumstances. He organized buses to Washington for the Jan. 6, 2021, rally in Washington and can be seen on video crossing police lines at the Capitol as the rally became a riot. He has also been a leading advocate of the baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump.
Mastriano’s name has appeared in documents released by the committee investigating the Capitol riot, and he claims to have been in close personal contact with Trump about their shared drive to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory. In February, the committee demanded “documents and information that are relevant to the select committee’s investigation” in a letter to Mastriano. He has refused to say whom he would appoint as secretary of state, a critical position overseeing election infrastructure and voting.
Mastriano has appeared at events linked to QAnon, the amorphous conspiracy theory that alleges there is a secret cabal of elite pedophiles running the federal government and other major U.S. institutions. He also has made statements that veer into Islamophobia.
He is likely to be an especially weak candidate in the crowded suburbs around Philadelphia, the state’s most important political battleground. On the other side of the state, the editorial page of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has already all but officially endorsed Shapiro as “the only statewide candidate who did everything the Pennsylvania way.”
Operatives in both parties expect Shapiro to blitz Mastriano with advertising portraying him as a dangerous extremist while Mastriano’s shoestring organization struggles to raise money.
Even before Mastriano clinched the nomination, Shapiro’s campaign aired an ad highlighting his views on abortion and the 2020 election as well as his ties to Trump, who lost the state to Biden by 80,000 votes.
Mastriano gave scant indication during Tuesday’s victory speech that he was ready to shift toward a more palatable general election message. Listing his early priorities as governor, he said, “mandates are gone,” “any jab for job requirements are gone,” critical race theory is “over,” “only biological females can play on biological female teams” and “you can only use the bathroom that your biological anatomy says.”
The Mastriano matchup also plays to Shapiro’s carefully cultivated image as a fighter for democracy, though his campaign plans to focus primarily on bread-and-butter economic issues such as jobs, taxes and inflation.
As attorney general, Shapiro was directly involved in the Pennsylvania government’s litigation after the 2020 election, and oversaw at least 40 cases of alleged voter fraud — winning every single one.
Will national Republicans help Mastriano or shun him? The major players in governor’s races appear to be waiting to see how the race develops before making that determination.
Some Republicans believe the national tail winds blowing in their favor might help Mastriano win despite all of his weaknesses, but for now, Democrats are thrilled to be facing him in November. They note that Shapiro performed better than Biden did in Pennsylvania during his reelection race as state attorney general, and expect Shapiro to be flooded with donations from in and outside the state.
On Tuesday night, the Republican Governors Association issued a lukewarm statement acknowledging Mastriano’s victory, but suggesting he was on his own for now.
“Republican voters in Pennsylvania have chosen Doug Mastriano as their nominee for governor,” Executive Director Dave Rexrode said. “The RGA remains committed to engaging in competitive gubernatorial contests where our support can have an impact.”
The statement left room for the possibility that the GOP governors might help Mastriano should the Pennsylvania race be close in the fall.
“We make those decisions based on where we think we can be effective,” Gov. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, co-chairman of the governors’ group, said on CNN on Sunday. “Our policy has long been we get involved in races where we think we can win. So, that candidate, whoever gets elected in Pennsylvania, will have to show that they’re going to make it a good race.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.