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Why Trump's guy winning the primary for Pennsylvania governor should worry the GOP

If he wins in the general election, Doug Mastriano would appoint the official who oversees Pennsylvania’s elections.
Image: Doug Mastriano
Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, speaks at a primary night gathering in Chambersburg on Tuesday after he won the Republican nomination for governor.Carolyn Kaster / AP

Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano attended the Jan. 6, 2021 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington and was near the U.S. Capitol when Trump supporters attacked it. Since then, Mastriano has spread numerous lies about the 2020 presidential election, and he even called for decertifying the election results. He’s taken the position that, irrespective of the popular vote, the Pennsylvania General Assembly has the “sole authority” to appoint presidential electors if an election is “compromised” (which he says happened in 2020). Not surprisingly, Mastriano was enthusiastically endorsed by former President Donald Trump.

Mastriano’s victory is one more worrisome sign of the ongoing degradation of our democratic institutions.

None of the above, however, stopped Mastriano from winning the Republican nomination for Pennsylvania governor on Tuesday. If anything, his devotion to spreading the big election lie is the reason he prevailed.

If he wins in the general election against Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general, Mastriano would appoint Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, who oversees the state’s elections. Thus, Mastriano could practically ensure that no Democratic presidential candidate could win the state’s electoral votes as long as he resides in Pennsylvania’s governor’s residence.

Mastriano’s victory is one more worrisome sign of the ongoing degradation of our democratic institutions. Indeed, his views about the 2020 election are not fringe beliefs within the Republican Party; they are increasingly dominant. On Tuesday, in North Carolina’s U.S. Senate primaries, Republican Ted Budd, who as a member of the House voted against certifying Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 election, won the GOP nomination (on Tuesday Budd refused to say that Biden won the election, even though he’s previously been caught on tape acknowledging the president’s victory). Two weeks ago, another 2020 truther, J.D. Vance, won the party’s nomination for U.S. Senate in Ohio.

But what might work for a Republican candidate in light red North Carolina or Ohio is unlikely to work as well in light blue Pennsylvania, which is why Mastriano’s victory could spell disaster for Republicans in the Keystone State.

In the weeks leading up to Tuesday’s election, Pennsylvania Republicans were practically pulling their hair out trying to stop Mastriano’s momentum. Many were near-apoplectic when Trump weighed in at the 11th hour and threw his support behind him.

In addition to Mastriano’s conspiratorial views about the 2020 election, he is a full-on Christian nationalist who unabashedly argues that his version of Christianity should play a greater role in state government. Mastriano says he is "reclaiming" the state of Pennsylvania, which he calls the “promised land” "for Christ" and if he wins will restore "God's kingdom" in the state.

Not surprisingly, he is vehemently opposed to abortion – a problematic position as the Supreme Court appears to be on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade. He frequently begins his campaign speeches by declaring, “Only biological women can participate in sports, day one” of his administration, and “CRT is done, boom, day one.” His political views are so extreme that he unapologetically refuses to engage with political opponents or even media outlets that don’t parrot his views.

In some red states, Mastriano’s political positions would likely be embraced, but in Pennsylvania, they are decidedly outside the mainstream. Indeed, while many will point to Trump’s victory there in 2016 as evidence that the state is a toss-up, Trump’s victory is the only time a Republican presidential candidate has won there in the last eight elections.

Four years ago, the state’s current Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, won re-election by 17 points. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., a Democrat, also prevailed in his re-election fight by double digits. And after helping Trump win the White House in 2016, the state’s voters rejected President Trump’s re-election bid four years later.

Even in a terrible political environment for Democrats everything breaking Mastriano’s way seems less likely considering his extreme view.

As Brian Rosenwald, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and close follower of state politics, pointed out to me, “Republicans have a very narrow ceiling in the state. Dems have far more room for error.” For Republicans to win statewide, said Rosenwald, pretty much everything needs to break their way. In 2016, Trump turned out hundreds of thousands of voters who had stayed home four years earlier. The Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, underperformed among white suburban voters — and Trump still only won by about 44,000 votes.

Trump dragged the current Republican U.S. senator, Pat Toomey, over the finish line in 2016, helping him win by 1.5 points. And in 2010, a year in which Republicans dominated midterm elections nationally, Toomey only narrowly won. Even in a terrible political environment for Democrats, everything breaking Mastriano’s way seems less likely considering his extreme views.

Compounding his uphill fight is that he will be facing off against Shapiro, who has already won two statewide elections and enjoys a huge fundraising advantage over his opponent.

In a further sign of Mastriano’s troubles, the Republican Governor’s Association issued a statement Tuesday night that neither congratulated him for his victory nor pledged to help him win in November. RGA Executive Director Dave Rexrode said the organization "remains committed to engaging in competitive gubernatorial contests where our support can have an impact," but didn’t describe the Pennsylvania race as one of those contests.

Rosenwald told me, “​​This is the most train wreck-y set of primaries I’ve ever seen.” He added, “I’ll hedge a little given how strange things are (in politics today), but everything we know about Pennsylvania politics says the GOP has a major problem. In a normal political environment, Democrats would win handily.”

Mastriano’s political liabilities could have disastrous down-ballot effects for the rest of the GOP ticket.

Mastriano’s political liabilities could have disastrous down-ballot effects for the rest of the GOP ticket. As of Wednesday afternoon, we still don’t know who will prevail in the Republican race for Senate to face off against Democratic nominee John Fetterman. But whoever gets the party’s nod, Dr. Mehmet Oz or David McCormick, will have the challenge of running alongside Mastriano and his toxic brand of politics. (And it bears noting that in order to stay in Trump’s good graces, neither Oz nor McCormick acknowledge Biden’s victory either).

Assuming Mastriano runs poorly against Shapiro, any successful Senate Republican candidate will have to outrun him by multiple points – in an era when split-ticket voting is increasingly a thing of the past.

For Republicans, the situation in Pennsylvania is the downside of their devotion to Donald Trump. In red states where Republicans have a natural advantage, even the most extreme candidate can win statewide elections. But in places like Pennsylvania, where the margin for GOP victory is much thinner, the increasing extremism of the national party can have dire electoral consequences. With Mastriano helming the ticket, Pennsylvania Republicans could be in for a rough night on Nov. 8.