When state Sen. Doug Mastriano was considering a run for governor in 2020, political experts and pundits wrote him off.
They said he was too extreme, had no name recognition or campaign money and, as a legislator from a rural district covering Franklin County and parts of Adams and Fulton counties, that he lacked the large political base on which many successful statewide races are built.
On Tuesday night he became the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania governor.
The crowded field worked to his advantage, creating conditions that ultimately led to his victory over several big name GOP politicians, including ones with big money behind them. He fought off an 11th-hour move by the Republican establishment to get voters to rally around former US Rep. Lou Barletta, the second-place finisher.
Mastriano did all that on a shoestring budget.
Still, many political analysts see him as having little or no chance against the Democratic nominee, Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general whose lack of a primary opponent allowed him to amass $ 20 million for his campaign.
Mastriano’s efforts to help former President Donald Trump overturn the 2020 election, to justify what critics call “The Big Lie” and his attendance at the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol make him a target for Shapiro.
“He’s dangerous and way too extreme for Pennsylvania,” said Dana Fritz, Shapiro’s campaign manager, in a fundraising email sent after Tuesday’s primary.
There is, however, a path for Mastriano to shock the political establishment again in November.
Better than a longshot
Stephen Medvic, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College, sizes up Mastriano as having “an outside chance but not a longshot.”
Mastriano’s election night victory speech hinted that he’s not moving to the middle of the political spectrum, as general election candidates often do. That could signal a strategy of “base mobilization, pure and simple,” Medvic said. It means mobilizing Trump voters and extracting every single vote possible in the state’s red counties.
That strategy, in what’s looking to be a “bad year for Democrats,” could put Pennsylvania’s governor’s race in play, Medvic said.
“In a polarized environment, people would vote for the party nominee. That gives him a fighting chance, ”Medvic said. “That all makes it possible.”
As Democrats hit Mastriano for his actions on January 6 and efforts to help Trump, Republicans may be willing to dismiss attack ads as partisan, Medvic said.
Mastriano also enjoys what could be the ultimate turnout booster: a Trump endorsement that’s likely to translate to the former president campaigning in person for Mastriano this fall.
Mastriano is still the “underdog,” said Medvic. If he “can’t mobilize enough base support to overcome swing voters, he’ll lose,” Medvic said.
But with Trump’s backing and the Democrats’ midterm curse, “I think he shouldn’t be under-estimated,” Medvic added.
That view may not be widely shared, but it is far from isolated.
“We should not discount the real possibility Mastriano is the next governor,” said Sarah Frostenson, political editor of FiveThirtyEight, on a 538 post-election podcast.
“I think Mastriano could very well win,” added Geoffrey Skelley, 538’s election analyst, on the same podcast.
Mastriano “combines the Trump base and the religious base,” said Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College south of Pittsburgh.
Still, a Shapiro win is “very likely,” DiSarro said.
Though Democrats’ voter registration has been shrinking in Pennsylvania, the party still holds an approximate half-million voter edge over Republicans. Thus, it behooves any Republican running to appeal to Democrats, DiSarro said, and that is a tough task for Mastriano.
DiSarro, who is a registered Republican and is a professor who has taught at least three students over the years who became GOP lawmakers (including Melissa Hart, a former congresswoman and an unsuccessful candidate for governor in this primary), talks to leading Republicans quite regularly.
The chatter during the week after the election, he said, was about the possibility of a GOP candidate gathering the signatures by August to get on the November ballot as an independent, DiSarro said. For that to go anywhere, it would take a lot of money and a candidate who already has statewide name identification.
A successful Republican third party candidate could take votes from both Shapiro and Mastriano, but would most likely deny Mastriano a victory. Over the years, third-party candidates have seen only modest success in statewide races.
Who is Mastriano?
Mastriano, 58, is a US Army combat veteran and devout Trump supporter. He appeared on the political scene in 2019, when he won a special election a year after he ran unsuccessfully for Congress. He built a following in 2020 as a prominent opponent of Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic restrictions and business shutdowns.
In the weeks after Biden won Pennsylvania by 80,554 votes, Mastriano joined almost every unsuccessful lawsuit aimed at overturning the election. In late November 2020, he introduced a resolution to have the Legislature decertify the election results and appoint Trump electors in place of those pledged to Biden.
Most infamously, Mastriano organized the Gettysburg hearing on Nov. 25, 2020, that provided a forum for Trump and his lawyers to lay out their claims about the election being stolen and help launch what critics call “The Big Lie.”
Technically, it was a Senate Republican Policy hearing, but committee chairman David Argall turned it over to Mastriano. Trump called in from the White House. “This was an election we won easily, we won by a lot,” he said, as one of his attorneys, Jenna Ellis, held a cell phone up to a microphone so the audience could hear the president.
Mastriano was on the US Capitol grounds on January 6 to protest the “stolen election” and took busloads of supporters to the rally that later turned violent. He was charged with no crime. He says he left as things heated up. He has been subpoenaed by the House investigative committee. All he would say in a recent debate is he has no “legal issues” stemming from the investigation.
Mastriano was in “regular contact with the former president” on January 6, the Associated Press reported last week.
After Tuesday’s primary, the Pennsylvania governor’s race was moved from a “toss up” to a “lean Democrat” by The Cook Political Report, a respected political news organization. With Mastriano as the GOP nominee, “it is still competitive, but we see Shapiro as having the advantage,” Cook analyst Jessica Taylor told LNP.
“I’m running against one of the most extreme candidates in the country, and I’m going to need your help to win,” Shapiro said Thursday in a fundraising email.
At his Tuesday night election event, Mastriano bristled at being called extreme. He turned the attack around, blasting the “draconian” policies pushed by Wolf and backed by Shapiro that, he said, took away individual freedoms during the pandemic, stifled economic growth, and devastated Pennsylvania’s energy sector.
He rejected critics who paint those “who stand on the Constitution ‘far right’ and ‘extreme.’” Mastriano said, “I repudiate that. That is crap and absolutely not true. ”
“A generic Republican” could do well and even win this fall, Taylor said. But Pennsylvania Republicans were “apoplectic” about Mastriano’s primary victory and concerned about the down ballot impact, Taylor said.
For his part, Shapiro wanted Mastriano to win. His campaign even aired a TV ad designed to help Mastriano during the final two weeks of the primary by telling viewers that a vote for Mastriano was a vote for Trump.
“Pennsylvania is a swing state. Nothing suggests he (Mastriano) will expand beyond his own supporters, ”said Taylor, the editor responsible for Senate and gubernatorial races at the Cook Report. “He (Mastriano) is not Tom Ridge or Pat Toomey. He is not a candidate for the Philly suburbs where races are won or lost. ”
Mastriano also won’t get much money from Washington political groups, she said.
But nationally, the Trump endorsement and Mastriano’s Evangelical roots would be expected to bring in campaign cash.
Mastriano could not be reached for comment.
If the US Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, as suggested by a draft opinion leaked last month, Mastriano would be the candidate who may suffer most, given his commitment to ban all abortions without exceptions. That could prompt more abortion rights voters to turn out in the fall, perhaps a liberal wave in an otherwise Republican year, said Taylor.
While Shapiro is favored, Mastriano is not counted out in a state Trump won in 2016 to the astonishment of many experts.
> Brad Bumsted is Harrisburg bureau chief of The Caucus, LNP’s publication covering Pennsylvania politics and government.