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Don't Dismiss Any GOP Nominee This Election
Some Pundits are dismissing Pennsylvania's GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano as a sure loser in November. Polling and election trends suggest otherwise
May is a huge month for political primary elections in even-numbered years (and a few odd ones). Oregon, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Idaho held primary elections on Tuesday. The Keystone State’s highly competitive GOP primary elections for their statewide offices - all of which are open seats - drew the most attention, with one notable exception in the Tarheel State.
We won’t know the US Senate GOP primary winner for weeks once election officials finally count mail ballots and conduct a recount to see whether David McCormick or Mehmet Oz is the party’s nominee against Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.
All eyes will be on Georgia and Alabama next week. Arkansas also has primary elections, where Sarah Huckabee Sanders will be officially coronated as the GOP nominee for governor. We then buckle up for many June primaries, some of which feature runoff elections when no candidate captures fifty percent of the vote. Georgia is one of those states. I bet a few Pennsylvanians are wishing that they had runoff elections.
And then there is Virginia, which holds old-fashioned congressional district conventions to nominate candidates under a “ranked-choice” system. You can’t just show up and vote. For my Eighth District convention in deep-blue northern Virginia, you needed to have registered with your city or county by the end of March, bring your voter ID, and be prepared to rank all five candidates from your first to last choices. The first candidate to capture fifty percent plus one captures the nomination as last-place candidates drop off one by one, as “ranked-choice” votes get reapportioned. Republicans probably would do better with an open primary election as Democrats prefer since we do not register to vote by party in Virginia. I can also participate in the Democratic primary election next month. No thanks. I’m not one of them.
Conventions attract much smaller numbers of hard-core activists who might not pick the most electable candidate. However, it worked well last year with the nominations of Governor Glenn Youngkin and his two successful running mates, Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears and Attorney General Jason Miyares.
While GOP prospects in my D+21 congressional district range between zero and nil, one county party official tells me that the number of delegates registered to attend Saturday’s convention has doubled since last year to about 500. That’s notable.
Also notable has been vastly higher turnouts for primary elections this year. In 2018, the last non-presidential primary election, some 730,000 Republicans cast ballots, compared to about 752,000 Democrats. The GOP featured competitive contests, as this year, for US Senate, Governor, and Lt. Governor.
Fast forward four years later, to this week. The GOP primary will likely attract over 1.4 million primary voters - a 100 percent increase from four years ago. Democrats, too, by the way, saw a massive boost to 1.2 million, but it is rare in modern times for Republicans to outnumber Democrats in primary election turnout.
These turnout trends are evident elsewhere. Republican primary voters in North Carolina outvoted Democrats by more than 140,000. Kentucky Republicans outvoted Democrats by more than 100,000. Only 33,000 Democrats bothered to vote in deep-red Idaho’s primary. Only in deep-blue Oregon bucked the trend with Democrats outpolling Republicans by about 100,000, but there wasn’t high interest in GOP primary races.
But what kind of candidates are we nominating, and do they have good chances of winning competitive races in November?
North Carolina Republicans did themselves a favor by unseating the tragic and toxic 26-year-old freshman US Rep. Madison Cawthorne with 62-year-old state Senator Chuck Edwards. Most GOP leaders here were united behind Edwards. Unfortunately, we’ve not heard the last of Cawthorne, who remains in office for another seven months. Republicans nominated a solid conservative as their nominee for the open US seat, US Rep. Ted Budd. Budd soundly defeated former Gov. Pat McCrory, who ran a strong campaign but was the subject of brutal negative advertising by the conservative Club for Growth. Donald Trump’s early endorsement of Budd helped, but Budd proved to be a high-quality candidate with broad appeal.
But Trump’s last-minute endorsement of Pennsylvania’s GOP gubernatorial nominee, State Senator, author, and retired Army colonel Doug Mastriano, was probably not a factor. Pennsylvania’s media, along with plenty of ammunition from Mastriano himself, has tarred the candidate as a “far-right” election “truther” and a "Christian nationalist.” Nominee Josh Shapiro via the Pennsylvania Democratic party invested heavily in mailings to GOP households to boost the under-funded Mastriano’s name identification and tie him to Trump. It worked.
“The Democrats Get Their Man in Pennsylvania,” roared the headline of an editorial in the Wall Street Journal the day after the election. Mastriano unified the pro-Trump, anti-establishment conservative right against a field of 8 other candidates (who of whom dropped out late) who split the rest. Efforts by anti-Mastriano Republicans to unify behind former US Rep. Lou Barletta failed miserably, as such efforts almost always do.
“This should be a good GOP year everywhere, and certainly in Pennsylvania after two terms of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. Yet Mr. Mastriano has an uphill fight against Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general.
“Last month Mr. Mastriano addressed a “Patriots Arise” rally, where other speakers lamented “child satanic trafficking” and other QAnon nonsense. He sponsored a bill to ban abortion after about six weeks and said at a recent debate that, “I don’t give way for exceptions either.” He wants to rip up contracts with “compromised voting machine companies,” while doing a reset of the voter rolls: “You’re going to have to re-register.”
“Democrats fear that a Gov. Mastriano would be a threat to democracy, since he would appoint the secretary of state. Whom would he pick, and would that person certify a loss for Mr. Trump in 2024, if that’s what the vote tallies showed? Yet if Mr. Shapiro truly worries about this, then he was playing with fire by helping Mr. Mastriano secure the GOP nomination. Voters will note the cynicism at work.”
There’s no doubt that Mastriano starts behind. Polling before the primary election showed him losing to Shapiro by about nine points. The Cook Political Report moved the race to “lean Democrat” from its “toss-up” category upon Mastriano’s victory. But those are hardly a death sentence. Terry McAuliffe once led GOP gubernatorial nominee - and eventual winner - Glenn Youngkin by nine points in one late August poll before the general election.
Mastriano currently loses a fifth of registered Republicans, thanks to portrayals of him as some nutty J6 insurrectionist (he’s not been called that yet, but just wait). The fear is he will be a drag on other down-ballot Republicans, possibly cost Pennsylvania’s GOP control of the state legislature and tilt other races for Congress and the US Senate.
But Mastriano should not be dismissed in a year when an increasing number of voters in Pennsylvania are tilting GOP in frustration and anger at both Joe Biden, congressional Democrats, and outgoing incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf. His primary win was impressive, given his lack of resources. He’s been an activist State Senator on several issues, such as energy independence, law enforcement, and farmland preservation. His 44 percent primary win swamped the field and was impressive, given all that Democrats and his Republican opponents threw at him.
There is a path forward, albeit a narrow one, for the decorated army paratrooper to catch favorable winds and land his parachute into the governor’s office in November.
Here are some things he needs to do.
Embrace the Happy Conservative Warrior
First, he must become a happy conservative warrior with a positive vision for “every day” Pennsylvanians. He must focus on practical kitchen-table concerns, including the cost of living, high fuel prices (Pennsylvania has the third-highest gasoline taxes in the nation), and high property taxes (among the highest in the country). Good work has already been done on plans to dramatically lower painful property taxes, especially in higher-cost suburban communities. He can couple that with a plan with Youngkin-style programs to empower parents of public school students, which has been a feature in swing Chester County in the Philly suburbs. He can promote school choice to give parents stuck in Philly’s failing schools new options.
Surely, after three decades and four overseas deployments in the US Army, Mastriano can enlist soldiers who served with him to share stories of his leadership and courage. Let them define Mastriano’s leadership style. Put them on the road as “Veterans for Mastriano.” Include some female veterans if possible.
If I were in charge of Mastriano’s schedule, I would have him stay overnight with middle-class families as he traverses the state. He can hear and repeat their stories, a few of which can be captured on video by the families themselves.
Define Your Opponent. It’s Always “The Biden Shapiro Team”
Second, Mastriano needs to define Shapiro as a Biden Democrat (“the Biden-Shapiro team”) and a tool of teacher unions that shut down schools and harmed kids during the Commonwealth’s poorly managed pandemic lockdowns. Shapiro stood idly by and defended an autocratic governor who picked winners and losers in the economy during the state’s overly punitive lockdown. Wolf was the nation’s only governor to entirely shut down the real estate industry. Shapiro will be Tom Wolf’s third term.
Shapiro is undoubtedly heavily at work to recast himself as a “centrist” pro-business governor. That is not credible and can’t happen. Expect “Republicans for Shapiro” to be announced very soon. Look for former GOP Congressman and never-Trump Biden voter Charlie Dent to play a leading role, along with a few other grifters angling for jobs or contracts from a Shapiro Administration.
Embrace Your Running Mate and Unleash Smart Surrogates
Third, Mastriano should invite his Lt. Governor nominee, Carrie Lewis Del Rosso, to campaign with him as a team. She enjoys broad support among Republicans and Independents and helps sand the rough edges off Mastriano’s combative persona, a put-off to marginal voters. Coalitions of Pennsylvanians should be built and announced, from veterans, farmers, and law enforcement to “Moms for Mastriano.”
Along with that, smart campaigns use surrogates both to define opponents and fend off attacks. Several good surrogates can easily be found, starting with the third-place finisher and the former US Attorney for Eastern Pennsylvania, Bill McSwain, whom I supported. McSwain has tangled with Philadelphia’s Soros-funded non-prosecutor, Larry Krasner. A smart lawyer and tough former Marine who could run for Attorney General to replace Shapiro in two years, he can hone his skills on the crime issue and Shapiro’s lackluster record. There are others.
Conduct a “Tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself” Press Conference.
I have one more admittedly risky idea. After some serious and immediate speech and message coaching (Rich Zeoli, call your office), he should consider a Lanny-Davis-style, no-holes-barred press conference and offer to address any question the media has about anything Mastriano has done or said for as long as it takes, all at once. No angry responses or recriminations. Humility and honesty.
“Tell it early, tell it all, and tell it yourself,” Davis wisely advises his clients. This may help get pesky questions out of the way about his participation at the J6 rally and his election reform plans (and while Pennsylvania needs election reform, requiring people to re-register is a horrible idea). Mastriano needs to turn the page from his angry and combative primary messaging, debunk insults and assaults from the Philadelphia Inquirer, and put to bed some of these stories.
No, I’m not some political professional hack trying to “moderate” Mastriano or make him a faux centrist. Spare me the insults. This is all about focusing on issues that matter to a broader universe of persuadable voters and maintaining his authenticity while making him more relatable. The right messaging can tap into a mother lode of angry voters itching for positive change. I want him to win.
I’m happy to rewrite his stump speech. And while “The Plan” on Mastriano’s website also needs some revamping, there is a lot to work with. Remember, the audience has changed. It’s bigger and more diverse now. Speechwriting 101: Know your audience.
This strategy will also help Mastriano soften any bad feelings from the rest of his party and even help him raise much-needed dollars, including from the well-heeled Republican Governors Association. None of this works without adequate resources. This will take some time and patience.
Mastriano has about a month to retool while attention focuses on counting Senate ballots and other state primaries. Most voters won’t begin paying attention to the race again until school starts. He could use “unity” events over the summer with endorsements from party officials, his primary foes, and others representing the traditional GOP coalition. No need for Trump to attend. He has served his purpose. Let Shapiro hang Trump around Mastriano’s neck since that worked so well for Terry McAuliffe in his losing campaign to Youngkin just a few months ago.
Demographer Joel Garreau wrote 40 years ago in the Nine Nations of North America that Pennsylvania was a state of “magnificent decline.” While charming and bucolic and brimming with history, resources, and authentic, hard-working Americans, it continues to hemorrhage its population, lose congressional seats to faster-growing states, and has a challenging tax and business climate. Given a political environment where Republicans have as much as an unheard-of 8-point lead in the generic ballot test, and with GOP voter intensity also at an all-time high, there is no reason why Mastriano cannot win. He can.