Doug Mastriano: A Case Study in Not Building a Coalition
It was shortly after viewing the clip of the wife of Doug Mastriano – Pennsylvania’s ill-fated Republican nominee for governor – jumping in front of a press conference microphone to tell reporters that they “probably love Israel more than a lot of Jews do” that I thought to myself: Are these people intent on offending the entire electorate before losing?
This moment was emblematic of the Mastriano campaign, one that sincerely aimed to address only the Donald Trump MAGA faithful while competing in the blue-ish state of Pennsylvania. After all, Mastriano had been photographed dressing up as a Confederate soldier while serving as a state senator and had called attempts to ban conversion therapy for LGBT youth “disgusting” – moments practically designed to turn off the large numbers of independent, moderate, and former Republican voters in Pennsylvania crucial to a successful statewide bid.
Jenna Ellis, a national Trump alum advising Mastriano’s campaign, thought it wise to echo this sentiment on Twitter, calling Democratic gubernatorial nominee Josh Shapiro, who has deep ties to the Southeast Pennsylvania Jewish community, “at best a secular Jew.” How on earth could she know that, and why on earth would she say it?
Advice for future candidates: don’t tell minority groups – or any groups – that you are better stewards of their interests than they are.
Maybe there was some explanation behind these moments — but as they say in politics, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. What most voters saw of Mastriano was a picture of a bizarre and unlikeable political figure.
I was struck by the odd tone and presence from Mastriano when I moderated a Republican candidates’ forum in Harrisburg in April. With a number of candidates on stage, the dynamic between Mastriano and his sizable cohort of supporters felt oddly like the call-and-response of a preacher to his congregation. It was strange to witness.
This helps explain why Mastriano significantly underperformed the more moderate Mehmet Oz – the Republican U.S. Senate candidate – in Philadelphia’s vote-rich suburbs, where voters lean Democratic but have shown a willingness to split their tickets for Republicans like Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick and U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey.
Mastriano trailed Dr. Oz by more than 250,000 votes statewide, losing to Josh Shapiro by 14% and likely bringing multiple state house and congressional races down with him. Just north of Pennsylvania, the opposite occurred, with New York Republican Lee Zeldin putting up an impressive showing in his losing bid for governor, helping the GOP flip at least four congressional seats.
The biggest victims of Mastriano’s candidacy were Republicans running down-ballot for Congress and the state house, which is likely to revert to Democratic control for the first time in years. Incumbent Republican legislators like Todd Stephens in Montgomery County and Todd Polinchock in Bucks County were already facing a more Democratic map with redistricting; though they both outran Mastriano and Oz by significant margins, they appear to have been swallowed up in a mini Blue Wave.
Meanwhile, congressional hopeful Lisa Scheller nearly closed the gap to defeat Democrat Susan Wild in a rematch in Pennsylvania’s swingy Lehigh Valley-based Seventh Congressional District. Scheller outran Mastriano by tens of thousands of votes combined in the key counties of Northampton, Lehigh, and Carbon, but ultimately lost her race by 4,700 votes. Even a middling Republican candidate in the governor’s race would have likely helped her win it, delivering Pennsylvania Republicans a needed victory in an otherwise abysmal cycle. Only so many voters are willing to split their tickets.
Mastriano shared all of Trump’s bad qualities and none of his good ones. He showed bombast and an ability to offend, often needlessly, but notoriously avoided the media, including what should have been friendly outlets like conservative talk radio. He called one Southeast Pennsylvania conservative outlet “left-wing media” and accused it of resorting to “East German” tactics before ending an interview over a question about QAnon, which should have been a lay-up for a competent Republican candidate. He appealed to many of Trump’s diehards, but unlike the former president he made no effort to find new voters in Pennsylvania’s diverse, working-class communities that have moved rightward in recent election cycles. He embraced a Christian conservative playbook on a number of social issues, not just ignoring but angering the gay community. This contrasts with Trump, who waived a Pride flag in 2016.
Mastriano campaigned as an evangelist, not a candidate. His closing message was heartfelt and biblical – an image of a rainbow emerging over a Pennsylvania Trump rally – but not effective for the goal of winning a statewide election here. His message did not translate beyond his core supporters.
Mastriano's moment is up, but Pennsylvania Republicans will need to figure out how to field candidates with wider appeal if they wish to avoid another spectacular loss in 2024.