Pennsylvania’s much-watched Republican senate election remains unresolved, with celebrity health adviser race Mehmet Oz and businessman David McCormick still too close to call and probably headed for a recount.
However, the race for the GOP nominee for Pennsylvania governor is set. Its outcome has left established Republicans — and pretty much anyone concerned that someone who has embraced Donald Trump’s election in charge of a pivotal swing state — with serious heartburn.
Doug Mastiano, the Republicans’ governor candidate, is extreme, even by modern GOP standards. The first-term senator defended efforts to undo President Joe Biden’s 2020 Pennsylvania victory and has been subpoenaed by the Jan. 6 House Committee of Inquiry for his participation in the events leading up to the uprising that day. He will face Democrat Josh Shapiro, the current state attorney general, in the general election.
Andrew Seidman is a Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer who covered the GOP gubernatorial primary and is pursuing Mastriano’s candidacy. I spoke to him Thursday after Mastriano’s victory to understand how such a figure managed to win the party’s nod to the highest office of the state, and what his candidacy might look like from here.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What surprised you about the results on Tuesday evening?
I was surprised by how well Doug Mastriano did. Many people in campaign and Republican circles thought he had a ceiling of about 25 percent of the vote. Some polls late in the race showed maybe 30 percent. He got almost 45 percent†
He did well almost everywhere. He even won in a few counties outside of Philadelphia, though his support there was not as strong as in some of the more rural parts of the state.
I think the fact that Trump came in on Saturday [three days before the election] and endorsed Mastriano gave him a boost there at the end, but he was already in command of the race at that point.
When did you notice the shift in momentum for Mastriano?
From the outset, Mastriano led the most polls. Sometimes [early Trump backer and former Rep.] Lou Barletta would stand up in it. They were the two best known candidates.
Mastriano garnered a lot of attention for his efforts to reverse the 2020 elections and his continued pursuit of election investigations. Before that, he was known for his outspoken opposition to Governor Tom Wolf’s coronavirus restrictions — leading rallies outside the state’s capital. In May, Mastriano’s lead started to grow a bit. Some Republicans hoped Trump would back someone else — somebody else — to try to change that dynamic.
By the time Trump showed up to rally in western Pennsylvania with Oz a few weeks ago, there was no approval. That was somewhat seen as Trump’s last chance to put his thumb on the scale and give someone else back. He didn’t. Then we got this kind of last-ditch attempt to stop Mastriano, which failed.
Trump, perhaps worried that Oz will lose his primary, seems to want to pick a winner. And he finds out Doug, at the last minute on Saturday before the election. I don’t think anyone thinks that was a deciding factor in the race, but it certainly could have helped him in the margins.
What did the voters you spoke to say they liked about Mastriano?
Some people we spoke to would say their main problem was election integrity. There were definitely people attracted to Mastriano at that point. But the organizing principle of his campaign was more about personal freedom, which he would say is based on the Bible. You can’t listen to him for more than five minutes without getting that impression. It’s part of everything he does. Its catchphrase is “to walk like free men.” That’s even on his 100-day plan at the office.
So there’s an element of the election stuff, but also his faith, he talks about that very directly in a way that most candidates don’t. Also, ongoing anger at the pandemic and how the government handled it. Voters have also brought to the fore his military background — he served in the military for decades and retired as a colonel a few years ago.
I want to talk more about the role of religion in his campaign. I know it played a big role, even when compared to other GOP campaigns. Can you give me an idea of how much influence that could have in Pennsylvania and on the Republican base?
That’s something I’ve been trying to locate. There was a 2018 AP VoteCast poll of the mid-term electorate that found that 17 percent of the Pennsylvania electorate identifies as white evangelical Christian. That’s an influential piece in a Republican primaries† Not all white evangelical Christians will support someone like Mastriano, but it’s a basic figure.
Watching his rallies gives them the vibe of a mega-church event. There is prayer, there are ritual ceremonies. It’s a big part of his pitch. It’s hard to tell how many people like him because they agree with him about the election, and they’re tired of Harrisburg, how many people like him because of his ideas about religion. But that’s definitely an element.
Since Mastriano has banned you – along with many other journalists – from his gatherings, how do you cover someone who won’t allow you to watch him or attend his campaign events?
It is certainly a challenge. You go to these things not just to see the candidate, but to talk to his supporters to get a sense of what’s going on. He does most of his events live so there is a window but it’s not the best shot. Were not there. I wonder if the general election campaign will change direction. They did admit some reporters to their election night party in Chambersburg. But we’re not going to cover him any other way – we’re just going to settle for what we have.
It’s not just traditional media outlets. He has come to blows with Breitbart – they have challenged Mastriano, and he has gone on the radio to destroy their reporters. He got into a verbal altercation with a conservative podcast host in the Philly area who asked him about January 6 and an event he was attending and promoting QAnon, and he abruptly ended the interview. It is an open question whether he will now even work with conservative media. I think he enjoys the fact that he has about 100,000 people who follow him on Facebook and that way he can communicate directly with his supporters.
What do you hear from Republicans in the state, including agents who have opposed him, since he won?
Some of the more mainstream Republican consultants and campaign advisers have made it clear in recent weeks that they view him as something uniquely ineligible in Pennsylvania. So they tried to stop him, although it was too late. But I’ve talked to a few people since the election who, even weeks ago, said Mastriano didn’t stand a chance. Now they say, look, the political environment for Democrats is so bad with Biden’s low approval ratings and inflation and even the baby food crisis – everything is piling up – maybe even Mastriano can ride a red wave and win. We also know that more mainstream mainstream Republicans have been wrong before about who might win an election. Donald Trump has shown that.
I expect most of the official Republican Party in Pennsylvania to align with Mastrian. They can shift resources. They may not be investing as much money in the governor’s race as they planned, the Republican Governors Association, in their statement [after his win], was rather lukewarm about Mastriano. They don’t necessarily invest, but they don’t rule it out.
On to the Senate race, how do you expect that to happen from here?
We’re still in recount territory, within that half percent range [which triggers an automatic recount in Pennsylvania]† My colleagues focused on that and said it could take a few weeks. I know we don’t expect a resolution by the end of this week, that’s for sure.
What do you expect from how that general election match with Democrat John Fetterman will go, if it’s McCormick or Oz?
On the one hand, Oz and McCormick are quite different, aren’t they? McCormick is the CEO of the hedge fund, a former Bush official. As one of my colleagues put it, he seemed to have the right resume for the Republican Party in 2012, not in 2022. But he was trying to reinvent himself as this MAGA, “Let’s go Brandon” guy – he had a campaign spot with that sense in it. Oz, of course, was also Trump’s husband.
It’s reasonable to expect Oz to be more Trumpy, which also means more itself, as the reality TV star/celebrity doctor who deals with voters. If you go to his town halls and see him operate, he is very much the emcee, the entertainer, checking people’s blood pressure and stuff. McCormick is just more of that traditional Republican politician. McCormick is more likely to make a stronger turn away from Trump than Oz.
Yeah, I think that’s going to be pretty hard for Oz. What kind of Democrats have you spoken to since the primaries as they review the GOP results and overall matchups?
The Democrats I spoke to were not surprised, but they too found it remarkable that Mastriano won by the margin he gained in the primaries. For some Democrats, there is now a “be careful what you wish for” element to [Mastriano’s win]†
Democratic candidate Josh Shapiro’s campaign began airing television ads a few weeks ago, linking Mastriano to Trump and portraying him as highly conservative, pointing out that he wants to support a “heartbeat law” that would ban abortion after about six weeks. forbids. They hoped for a twofold effect, which is to increase Mastriano’s chances of winning the primaries, [and] at the same time, they hoped this would define Mastriano to the wider electorate as someone they believe is out of touch with the average voter.
But there were some Democrats who said, “Hey, don’t believe this man is winning. He could be restricting abortion rights. He could be restricting voting rights.” The Pennsylvania governor has the power to appoint the Secretary of State, who will confirm the election, including the 2024 presidential election. Some Democrats are happy that Mastriano is the winner, and there are certainly Democrats who would rather someone else had won .
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