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)
When he ran away with his party’s nomination on Tuesday night, state Sen. Doug Mastriano proved that a couple of things are true about the Pennsylvania Republican Party, specifically, and Keystone State politics more broadly.
First, that its MAGA wing is now in complete control of a party that once produced Arlen Specter, Tom Ridge, and even Rick Santorum, and that its voters are completely comfortable with supporting a candidate who peddles the Big Lie; favors exception-free bans on abortion; can comfortably campaign in front of a QAnon-friendly crowd, and engage in just enough New Testament exegesis so that both garden variety evangelicals and Christian nationalists will nod in assent.
The second is that Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who was seen by many as trying to drag Mastriano across the finish line in the race’s closing days with a series of ads linking the central Pennsylvania pol to former President Donald Trump, in an effort to pick his fall challenger, should have been more careful about what he wished for.
Democrats wanted the same thing when they faced Trump in 2016. Remember how well that worked out?
In any case, Mastriano, who took more than 44 percent of the vote on Tuesday, according to unofficial tallies, didn’t need Shapiro’s help. He may scarcely have needed Trump’s endorsement, which already seemed implicit, though it formally came last weekend. He smoked former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, who was one of Trump’s earliest supporters. The former Hazleton mayor finished a distant second, taking 20.3 percent of the vote, unofficial returns showed.
During an appearance on Philadelphia radio host Chris Stigall’s show on Tuesday morning, Trump threw Barletta under the bus, and then put it into reverse. He told Stigall that Barletta’s double-digit drubbing at the hands of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey in 2018, had cost him the coveted endorsement.
“I know Lou, I like Lou. The problem is he ran a very bad race the last time. He was a little missing in action. It wasn’t rigged or stolen, he just didn’t run a good race, and he got beaten pretty badly,” Trump said.
With friends like these …
Even so, Barletta said last week that he still planned to support whomever emerged from the GOP’s nominating demolition derby. Though it was easier for him to be magnanimous when he still thought he had a chance — however slender — of winning.
It is difficult to understate how extreme Mastriano’s positions really are.
He has called for, among other things, wiping the state’s voter rolls clean, forcing every voter to re-register, as he seeks to root out the fraud that he, and every other Big Lie adherent, have so failed to produce. He said he has a candidate in mind for his secretary of state — the state’s top elections official, whom he gets to appoint. That could, conceivably, lead to sweeping changes in how the commonwealth administers its elections. And, if past is prologue, lead to widespread voter suppression.
All of this has combined to give Mastriano, who understands the strength of social media in the same way Trump understands it, a deeply devoted base.
In the final Trafalgar Group poll heading into Tuesday’s intra-party contests, Mastriano pulled in the support of 37.2 percent of the poll’s 1,200 likely Republican voter respondents, giving him a 12.3-point edge over Barletta. More, Mastriano picked up nearly 10 percentage points from a May 8 Trafalgar poll, even as the number of undecided voters dropped from 11.4 percent to 4.7 percent, PoliticsPA reported.
During a Wednesday morning panel discussion on WHYY-FM in Philadelphia in which I participated, a listener complained that the media was normalizing Mastriano’s extreme stances. Let me be clear, there’s nothing normal about them. The bigger issue, however, is that they have utterly infiltrated the Pennsylvania GOP’s bloodstream. For them, it is now normal.
And that’s what made the 11th-hour push by establishment Republicans to halt Mastriano’s victory alternately so comical and vexing.
The GOP has spent the last decade-and-a-half, going back to the rise of the Tea Party movement, tilling, seeding, and lovingly tending the ground that gave birth, first to Trump, and then to his Trumpier-than-thou successors.
And on Wednesday, to my knowledge, not one Pennsylvania Republican allegedly so distressed by Mastriano has attempted to disavow him, or said they planned to sit out the election in protest. Which should tell you all you need to know.
Pennsylvania Democrats cleared the field to give Shapiro a path to the nomination. They need to pray that Shapiro, who did not go through the necessary battle testing of a spring primary, has the mettle to stand up to Mastriano, who has proven he will do what it takes to win.
Too much is at stake for them to be wrong.
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