Doug Mastriano’s primary win was bigger than anyone expected, says Philadelphia reporter Andrew Seidman. Now some Democrats regret their wish for a matchup with him.
Pennsylvania’s much-watched Republican Senate primary remains unresolved, with the race between celebrity health adviser Mehmet Oz and businessman David McCormick still too close to call and likely headed for a recount.
The race for the GOP nominee for Pennsylvania’s governor, though, is set. Its outcome has given establishment Republicans — and pretty much anyone who fears someone who’s embraced Donald Trump’s election lies being in charge of a crucial swing state — major heartburn.
Doug Mastriano, Republicans’ gubernatorial candidate, is extreme even by modern GOP standards. The first-term state senator championed efforts to overturn President Joe Biden’s win in Pennsylvania in 2020 and has been subpoenaed by the House January 6 investigating committee for his participation in the events that led up the insurrection that day. He’ll face Democrat Josh Shapiro, the state’s current attorney general, in the general election.
Andrew Seidman is a Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer who has been covering the GOP gubernatorial primary and following Mastriano’s candidacy. I spoke to him Thursday after Mastriano’s win to understand how such a figure succeeded in winning the party’s nod to the state’s highest office, and what his candidacy might look like from here.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What surprised you about the results Tuesday night?
I was surprised by just how well Doug Mastriano did. A lot of people in campaign and Republican circles thought he had a ceiling of about 25 percent of the vote. Some polls late in the race were showing maybe 30 percent. He got almost 45 percent.
He did well pretty much everywhere. He won even in a couple of the collar counties outside Philadelphia, though his support there was not as strong as in some of the more rural parts of the state.
I think that the fact that Trump came in on Saturday [three days before the election] and endorsed Mastriano gave him a boost there at the end, but he was already in command of the race at that point.
When did you notice the momentum shift for Mastriano?
Really from the outset, Mastriano was leading most polls. Sometimes [early Trump backer and former Rep.] Lou Barletta would rise in them. They were the two best-known candidates.
Mastriano gained a lot of attention over his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and his continued pursuit of investigations into the election. Before that, he was known for his vocal opposition to Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus restrictions — he led rallies outside the state capitol. By May, Mastriano’s lead started to grow a little bit. Some Republicans were holding out hope that Trump would endorse someone else — anyone else — to try to change that dynamic.
By the time Trump came to do a rally in western Pennsylvania a couple of weeks ago, with Oz, there was no endorsement. That was sort of seen as the last chance for Trump to put his thumb on the scale and back someone else. He didn’t do it. Then we got this sort of last ditch effort to stop Mastriano, which didn’t pan out.
Trump, perhaps fearful that Oz is going to lose his primary, seems to want to pick a winner. And he gets behind Doug, at the last minute on Saturday before the election. I don’t think anyone thinks that that was a decisive factor in the race, but it certainly might have helped him on the margins.
What did voters you talked to say they liked about Mastriano?
Some people we talked to would say their top issue was election integrity. There were certainly folks attracted to Mastriano on that issue. But the organizing principle of his campaign was more about personal freedom, which he would say is grounded in the Bible. You can’t listen to him for more than five minutes without getting that impression. It’s part of everything he does. His slogan is “to walk as free people.” That’s even on his 100-day plan in office.
So there is an element of the election stuff, but also his faith, speaking very directly about that in a way that most candidates do not. Also, continued anger over the pandemic and how the government handled it. Voters have also brought up his military background — he served in the army for several decades and retired as a colonel a few years ago.
I want to talk more about the role of religion in his campaign. I know it has played a big one, even relative to other GOP campaigns. Can you give me a sense of how much sway that can have in Pennsylvania and in the Republican base?
That’s something I’ve been trying to pinpoint. There was a AP VoteCast survey of the 2018 midterm electorate that showed 17 percent of the Pennsylvania electorate identifies as white evangelical Christian. That’s an influential slice in a Republican primary. Not all white evangelical Christians are going to support someone like Mastriano, but it’s a baseline figure.
When you watch his rallies, they take on the vibe of a megachurch event. There’s prayer, there are ritual ceremonies. It’s a big part of his pitch. It’s hard to distinguish how many people like him because they agree with him on the election, and they’re sick of Harrisburg, from how many are with him because of his ideas about religion. But that’s certainly an element.
Given Mastriano has banned you — along with many other journalists — from his rallies, how do you cover someone who doesn’t let you watch him or attend his campaign events?
It’s a challenge for sure. You go to these things not just to see the candidate, but to talk to his supporters to get a sense for what’s going on. He does livestream most of his events, so there is a window, but it’s not the best picture. We’re not there. I will be interested to see if the campaign changes its direction in the general election. They did allow some reporters into their election night party in Chambersburg. But we’re not going to cover him any differently — we’re just going to deal with what we have.
It’s not just traditional media outlets. He’s clashed with Breitbart — they’ve challenged Mastriano, and he’s gone on the radio blasting their reporters. He got in a verbal altercation with a conservative podcast host in the Philly region that asked him about January 6 and an event he went to that promoted QAnon, and he abruptly ended the interview. It’s an open question whether he’s now going to engage with even conservative media. I think he relishes the fact that he has something like 100,000 people following him on Facebook and he can communicate directly with his supporters that way.
What are you hearing from Republicans in the state, including operatives who opposed him, since he won?
Some of the more mainstream Republican consultants and campaign advisers made clear in the last couple of weeks that they see him as sort of uniquely unelectable in Pennsylvania. That’s why they tried to stop him, although it was too late. But I have talked to a couple of folks since the election who, even weeks ago, were saying Mastriano had no shot. Now, they’re saying, look, the political environment for Democrats is so bad with Biden’s low approval ratings and inflation and even the baby formula crisis — everything kind of piling up — perhaps even Mastriano could ride a red wave and win. We also know that more mainstream establishment Republicans have been wrong before about who could win an election. Donald Trump showed that.
I expect most of the official Republican Party in Pennsylvania to rally behind Mastriano. They might shift resources. They might not invest as much money in the governor’s race as they had planned to, The Republican Governors Association, in their statement [after his win], was pretty lukewarm about Mastriano. They’re not necessarily committed to investing either, but they didn’t rule it out.
Moving on to the Senate race, how do you expect that to play out from here?
We’re still in recount territory, within that half-a-percent margin [which triggers an automatic recount in Pennsylvania]. My colleagues focused on that say it could be a couple of weeks. I know we’re not expecting a resolution by the end of this week, that’s for sure.
What do you expect about how that general election matchup with Democrat John Fetterman is going to play out, if it’s McCormick or Oz?
On one hand, Oz and McCormick are pretty different, right? McCormick is the hedge fund CEO, former Bush official. As one of my colleagues put it, he seemed to have the right resume for the Republican Party in 2012, not 2022. But he tried to reinvent himself as this MAGA, “Let’s go Brandon” guy — he had a campaign commercial with that phrase in it. Oz, of course, ran as Trump’s guy, too.
It’s fair to expect Oz to be more Trumpy, which is also to say more himself, as the reality TV star/celebrity doctor who engages with voters. If you go to his town halls and see him operate, he is very much the emcee, the entertainer, checking people’s blood pressure and stuff. McCormick is just more of that traditional Republican politician. You’re more likely to see McCormick do a stronger pivot away from Trump than Oz.
Yeah, I guess that would be pretty hard to pull off for Oz. What have Democrats you’ve talked to since the primary said, as they assess the GOP results and the general matchups?
The Democrats that I have spoken to were not surprised, but they, too, thought it was notable that Mastriano won by the margin that he did in the primary. For some Democrats, there is now a “be careful what you wish for” element to [Mastriano’s win].
Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro’s campaign started airing television ads a couple of weeks ago tying Mastriano to Trump and portraying him as deeply conservative, pointing out that he wants to support a “heartbeat bill” banning abortion after around six weeks. They were hoping for a dual effect, which is to increase Mastriano’s chances of winning the primary, [and] at the same time, they were hoping that this would define Mastriano to the broader electorate as someone who’s out of touch, they think, with the average voter.
But there were some Democrats who said, “Hey, don’t root for this guy to win. He could curtail abortion rights. He could curtail voting rights.” The governor of Pennsylvania has the power to appoint the secretary of state, who certifies elections, including the 2024 presidential election. Some Democrats are happy that Mastriano’s the winner, and there are certainly Democrats who would prefer someone else had won.