State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, speaks at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference on Friday, April 1, 2022 in Camp Hill, Pa. next to fellow 2022 gubernatorial hopeful Lou Barletta. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
WORMLEYSBURG, Pa. — In what was likely a first, all nine Republican 2022 candidates for governor in Pennsylvania were in the same place Friday.
Now, they didn’t all share the stage — the forum, hosted by the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, a yearly conservative event that brings together Republican activists, advocates, and politicos — was divided into two one-hour blocks.
In those two hours, the nine, answering different policy and strategy-centered questions, offered similar policy prescriptions, but competing theories on how to beat likely Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro in November, and achieve conservative policy ends as governor.
For the most part, two types of candidates were on stage: Those trying to claim the mantle of a political outsider to shake up Harrisburg’s malaise, and those who say their experience in office is essential to passing the Republican agenda.
In the former camp sits at least one early leader in the polls — state Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin.
While he has spent time in Harrisburg, his plain-spoken mix of evangelical references and exhaultions to “walk as free people” appeared popular with the crowd, who frequently cheered for his responses.
Mastriano pointed to his frequent attendance at rallies opposing Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic policies, and vocal support of former President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election.
“We’re seeing people that want somebody who’s not just talking. They hear talking from Josh Shapiro. They hear talking from Republicans,” Mastriano said. “They want somebody who will lead the state with proven and bold leadership.”
Asked if he would sign right-to-work legislation, a top conservative priority that bans closed union shops in the state, Mastriano said yes. He added that he didn’t think it would be hard, because he argued that current Republican majorities in Harrisburg would be expanded in November.
Any GOP holdouts who balked at the policy, Mastriano added, he would pressure with his grassroots network of supporters to back the GOP agenda, which includes — broadly speaking for all the candidates — more natural gas drilling; fewer taxes and regulations; expanding school choice; and stricter voting laws that eliminate vote-by-mail.
It’s not a pitch unique to Mastriano. Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale, who jumped into the race months before Mastriano, said he would seek primary opponents for Republicans who don’t back his agenda.
The Republican establishment, Gale argued, has sold out GOP voters and has no accomplishments, besides higher gas taxes and mail-in voting, to show for three decades of near-total legislative control.
So what Republican voters need, he said, is a “flame thrower” who is “totally uncontrollable” by Harrisburg lobbyists and special interests.
“We need to burn it down and rebuild,” Gale said.
Tensions exist between the two, however, over Mastriano’s vote — with nearly all of his Harrisburg GOP colleagues in 2019 — for the state’s mail-in ballot law, known as Act 77.
Gale called Mastriano, who shared misinformation about mail-in ballots after the 2020 election, a “fraud” for the vote, and argued that no Republican who voted for the law should be picked as the next governor. The statement elicited a loud mix of boos and cheers.
That baggage of a Harrisburg record wasn’t just on Gale’s mind. Former federal prosecutor Bill McSwain, who’s never held elected office, highlighted his military service and prosecutorial background as a plus to contrast with Shapiro
He took an unabashedly tough-on-crime message to the crowd, pledging to begin moving forward with executions for 100-plus people already sentenced to die. He also argued that anyone who kills a law enforcement officer should be executed.
“The first civil right is the right to live in a safe neighborhood,” McSwain said.
And without naming anyone, McSwain added that there are candidates who “would be the functional equivalent of blowing ourselves up” against Shapiro.
As a conservative outsider off “the career politician carousel,” he was someone who could win and see the party’s agenda through.
Dave White, a former Delaware County councilmember and construction firm owner, made a similar pitch for contrast.
Asked if he’d repeal the prevailing wage, which sets higher pay for workers on government construction jobs, White pushed back that such an approach would drive “the blue collar worker who gets up and sweats” from the Republican Party.
Instead, he argued that his working-class background — he’s a former union steamfitter — meant he would be the right governor to take on teacher’s unions and shepherd through an expansion of state resources to private schools.
“We need someone from outside the system. We need a business guy that depends on results,” White said. “In business, you have to get results to get things done. In Harrisburg, if you don’t get results you get reelected.”
From the inside, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, argued his time in Harrisburg pushing for school vouchers and liquor privatization, although not always successful, showed a commitment to expanding the Republican base and standing up for people’s rights.
He held himself up in contrast to Wolf, who he said during early pandemic shutdowns wanted to make Pennsylvanians “feel comfortable with the government taking your civil liberties away.”
“Not on my last breath will I feel comfortable giving up my civil liberties,” Corman, who led a lawsuit to stop Wolf’s school mask mandate, said.
Former U;S. Rep. — and Hazleton mayor — Lou Barletta, who has, like Mastriano, led in polls, tried to walk a middle path, portraying a mix of elected experience and grassroots backing.
Pressed on his 2018 loss to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., Barletta argued that it “put him in a better position to win” by expanding his name ID with voters across the state.
And like McSwain, he argued the stakes for picking the right candidate were high.
“This [election] is our own party’s to lose,” Barletta said.
In a statement, state Democratic Party spokesperson Marisa Nahem was less sure.
“The simple fact is, we’re less than eight weeks away from the primary and there are so many far-right candidates on stage that they have to be split into two groups — but no matter who’s speaking, Pennsylvanians see a far-right politician too extreme and out-of-touch for our Commonwealth,” she said.
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