As Pa. Senate leader Corman preps GOP governor run, rival Mastriano explores idea

Their tandem entrance brings a Trump-tinged feud between two legislative colleagues to a key 2022 primary

By: and - November 5, 2021 10:03 am

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, and Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin (Capital-Star photo).

(*This story was updated at 1:51 p.m. on 11/5/21 with additional comment from Millersville University political analyst Terry Madonna and the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.)

The highest-ranking Senate Republican will be jumping into the already crowded field to become Pennsylvania’s next chief executive.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, is set to announce his entrance to the governor’s race at a private event next Thursday in his hometown of Bellefonte, Pa. Three sources with knowledge of the event confirmed it is for Corman’s campaign launch.

Corman did not immediately answer a call seeking comment.

But as rumors swirled, and a link to his kick-off event began circulating this week, Corman’s newfound opponent within the caucus, controversial conservative Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, announced an exploratory committee for governor in an email on Friday morning.

The two have openly feuded since August over how to conduct a legislative review of the 2020 general and 2021 primary elections.

Mastriano announced he’d conduct one in July, but Corman ousted Mastriano from a key committee chairmanship in August after Mastriano went on Facebook Live and told more than a 1,000 followers that the cause for a review was “weakened and diminished.”

Corman claimed Mastriano was only attempting to build his political brand with the probe; Mastriano claimed Corman slow-walked subpoenas to kick off the investigation. 

Either way, the two now appear poised to bring their rivalry to a key 2022 statewide race, which is already stuffed with competitors, as Republicans attempt to find the right candidate to win back the governor’s mansion for the GOP.

First elected in 1998, Corman, 57, was picked to replace his father, Doyle Corman, to represent the 34th State Senate District that includes Penn State University and rural central Pennsylvania communities.

He has since risen through the ranks of the Senate GOP to become the most powerful Republican in the upper chamber.

Corman has sponsored and passed legislation to reform the state pension system, and a bill increasing penalties for hazing on college campuses.

A close ally of Penn State University, Corman also waged — and won — a lawsuit against the NCAA on behalf of Penn State in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal. 

In a settlement between Corman and the college sports governing body, the NCAA agreed to waive sanctions against Penn State’s vaunted football program, restore 112 wins to former coach Joe Paterno, and keep $60 million in funding for child abuse prevention in Pennsylvania.

Corman’s intentions have been clear for the last few weeks. He met with the Pennsylvania GOP congressional delegation last month to gauge support for his run, according to The Caucus.

But his entrance further complicates the Republican field for governor. The race is already double digits deep, including former GOP U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, Republican strategist and lobbyist Charlie Gerow, former federal prosecutor Bill McSwain, and at least two of Corman’s Senate Republican colleagues besides Mastriano.

On the Democratic side, just one candidate — Attorney General Josh Shapiro — has announced a gubernatorial run.

Corman, a proven fundraiser, will boast the deepest establishment connections among candidates in the GOP race so far.

“Right now, I don’t know if there is a favorite, but I don’t think you could rule out that Corman could win the primary,” Terry Madonna, a long time Pennsylvania political watcher, told the Capital-Star.

However, despite the establishment credentials, Corman could face skepticism from Trump loyalists.

Weeks before the 2020 election, Corman released an op-ed with fellow Centre County Republican House Majority Leader Benninghoff, arguing the Legislature could not overturn the results of a presidential election, contrary to claims by Trump at the time.

He held firm in that conviction through the aftermath of now-President Joe Biden’s victory. However, the Senate Republican Caucus still waged expensive legal fights to challenge the Supreme Court’s election guidance. And in January, Corman signed a letter to Congress asking for Pennsylvania’s delegation to delay certification.

It’s unclear if that’s enough to satisfy Trump’s most loyal backers, and Mastriano has made clear in public remarks he views himself as the clear conservative choice in the race.

 “I was compelled to run for office after retiring from the Army, because our state and nation were less prosperous, less free, less secure and less good than how we received it from our parent’s generation,” Mastriano said in his campaign announcement email Friday morning. “I could not stand aside as corrupt politicians stripped our country of all that is good and just.”

First elected in a 2019 special election, Mastriano was a quiet backbencher until 2020. First, he became a vocal opponent of COVID-19 lockdowns during the early days of the pandemic. 

After the 2020 election, he amplified baseless claims of voter fraud, passing off the wrong information about mail-in ballot totals and inviting Donald Trump’s campaign attorney Rudy Giuliani to a taxpayer-paid hearing on election fraud in Gettysburg last November.

Mastriano funded a bus trip to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 for the Trump rally that ended with rioters storming the complex in an attempt to derail result certification. Mastriano said he did not participate in violence or cross police lines, but subsequent footage shows him closer to the building than he stated — but not inside the Capitol complex.

As early as summer 2020, grassroots conservatives were pushing Mastriano to jump into the race on social media. Mastriano even fielded a question on a potential run from a QAnon- friendly podcaster in his Senate office.

Mastriano told the podcast that he had three conditions for a run: “God’s calling, the people … compel us to go forth, and we have the resources.”

Many of those conditions appeared to be met in the early months of 2021. Mastriano, a frequent guest on right-wing media shows, appeared at Capitol rallies and fundraisers across the state with conservative activists.

But the fight over Pennsylvania’s election review, which prompted Corman to kick Mastriano out of private caucus meetings, has seemingly left Mastriano without the same platform.

The review had now continued under a new senator handpicked by Corman to lead the review. Madonna also noted a change in tone between Mastriano and Corman. While the former talked of corruption and fraud, Corman has just described “irregularities.”

That subtle shift alone, Madonna said, could be a sign of Corman’s strategy to thread the needle between his establishment base and the state’s Trump-friendly electorate.

Madonna compared Corman to successful Virginia gubernatorial hopeful Glenn Youngkin.

Youngkin didn’t “diss” Trump, he didn’t criticize him, “he just left him alone,” and Madonna expected Corman would try a similar tactic.

How closely Mastriano will hold himself to Trump is unclear. In May, he hinted he had Trump’s endorsement for governor in talk radio interviews, saying the former president promised to campaign for him. Sources close to Trump quickly shot down that claim.

Speaking to supporters at an event in Montgomery County this week, Mastriano — who was streaming live on Facebook — told attendees that an announcement, presumably the exploratory committee, about a gubernatorial run was coming “soon.” Though he cautioned that his run wasn’t official, he urged supporters to educate themselves on candidates before supporting them, blasting Corman in the process.

“It’s a big decision if you run for governor, and it’s going to be life-changing,” he said Wednesday night at the Rising Sun Inn. “We’re not afraid of the call, but if we do move forward, we need you to stand with us.”

He added: “The Republican establishment isn’t going to want me — they already don’t want me.”

In an emailed statement, Pennsylvania Democratic Party spokesperson Marisa Nahem pointed to Mastriano’s history, and claimed his announcement would “supercharge the race to the bottom” among GOP candidates competing to move right.

“His entry into the primary is the surest sign yet that Republicans are more interested in far-right litmus tests than addressing the challenges Pennsylvanians face every day,” Nahem said.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.

Marley Parish

Marley Parish covered the Senate for the Capital-Star.