Pennsylvania voters, the eyes of the nation are on you.
Tuesday’s primary election will answer a lot of questions about two of the most watched races in what’s seen by both parties as a crucial midterm election year.
At heart, it’s a test of former President Donald Trump’s hold on Republican voters in the Keystone State. Will his endorsements of two very different candidates – celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz, and first-term state Sen. Doug Mastriano – translate into victories?
In the GOP governor’s primary, the answer is very likely yes. Mastriano has been leading the crowded field in the polls for weeks, despite efforts by “establishment” Republicans to narrow the field in hope of coalescing anti-Mastriano votes around a single alternative candidate. Coming just three days before the polls open, Trump is hopping aboard the bandwagon of an already winning team.
But the real test of Trump’s strength lies in the primary to succeed US Sen. Pat Toomey, who is leaving office at the end of the year.
Any of three Republican candidates could win on Tuesday, setting up a race against likely Democratic nominee John Fetterman in a contest that could determine which party controls the Senate in 2023.
Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor and a darling of the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, holds huge leads over his closest challenger, US Rep. Connor Lamb, according to several polls.
The three candidates tied statistically on the GOP side are celebrity TV Dr. Mehmet Oz, David McCormick, the former CEO of the world’s largest hedge fund, and conservative commentator and author Kathy Barnette.
President Trump is backing Oz, which disappointed his hardcore supporters, many of whom are all-in on Barnette, who linked arms with Mastriano a year ago. The two campaigned side-by-side across the state, including a June 2021 event in Elizabethtown where the ultimate Trump loyalist, Ret. Gene. Michael Flynn, was the headline speaker.
As the polls close Tuesday night, here’s our top-of-mind questions:
Will the anyone-but-Mastriano Republicans line up behind Trump’s man after his very likely win on Tuesday night?
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Pennsylvania’s GOP in this year’s race to succeed Gov. Tom Wolf, the two-term Democrat.
The Legislature has been controlled by Republicans for years, but many of the party’s biggest goals – banning abortion, opening the gates to school choice, reining in liberal prosecutors in blue cities etc. – are blocked by Wolf’s veto pen.
This race comes with the added tension over 2024 – would a Republican governor intervene to reverse a narrow loss by Trump or another GOP candidate?
Mastriano’s strongest opponents on Tuesday include former US Rep. Lou Barletta, who led in early polling based on name recognition as a result of running unsuccessfully for US Senate in 2018.
There’s also former US Attorney Bill McSwain, endorsed by deep-pocketed PACs associated with charter schools and school choice proponents, but who is the recipient of perhaps the most bizarre non-endorsement ever made, a public “dis” by Trump who claimed McSwain would not investigate election fraud in the immediate wake of the 2020 election.
And there’s Dave White, who calls himself a blue-collar businessman and owns an HVAC company. He’s loaned or donated roughly $ 5 million to his campaign.
The party insiders decided in the primary race’s final weeks to try to unite the field behind Barletta, on the view that Mastriano is too extreme to win this fall. White and McSwain refused to drop out. Barletta, with endorsements from former rivals Jake Corman and Melissa Hart, pressed on with attacks on Mastriano’s electability. Several other pols came in with late endorsements of Barletta last week.
It’s hard to see these candidates and the establishment lobbyists and donors who backed them waking up Wednesday to enthusiastically proclaim their support for Mastriano.
How will the likely GOP nominee, Mastriano, match up against Shapiro, who has had his eyes on the governor’s mansion for years and has banked $ 20 million?
Shapiro spent millions on an ad to help Mastriano win because he prefers Mastriano as a general election opponent, gauging him as much further right than the rest of the GOP primary field.
“People are really worried, and I am talking about Republicans,” said Joseph DiSarro, a self-described conservative Republican who heads the Political Science Department at Washington & Jefferson College in southwestern Pennsylvania.
“Mastriano may be a fine person, but I believe he can’t win in November,” he said.
Mastriano has one important thing going for him – the support of thousands of rank-and-file Republican voters, many of whom were mobilized by Trump and the 2020 election. His name on the ballot this fall could boost Republican turnout in a way that an establishment candidate couldn’t.
Will Trump’s hold on Pennsylvania Republican politics be weakened if Oz loses?
Last week, something very unusual happened. Trump’s pick in the GOP gubernatorial primary in Nebraska, Charles Herbster, lost. That raises the stakes in Pennsylvania’s Senate primary, as a loss by Oz would further dent Trump’s reputation as a kingmaker.
Trump’s overall record in primary endorsements is extraordinarily good (58-1 by his own count), but a second loss in a row would remove his aura of invincibility.
He and others got here by underestimating Kathy Barnette, which allowed her to break through after Oz and McCormick nuked each other with negative ads. With just days to go until the election, Barnette’s rivals and the dark money groups supporting her found they had failed to adequately vet her.
Polls showing Barnette in reach of a win set Republicans from Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida resort, to Pennsylvania scrambling to dig into her past. It remained unclear whether she had major political problems aside from embarrassing social media posts that would hand ammunition to Democrats in the fall.
In past tweets, she attacked members of the LGBTQ community and Muslims, and she falsely asserted that former President Obama was a Muslim, acording to Axios. Seemingly in reference to the stepped up negative research on her, Barnette said at a Bucks County campaign stop: “There’s a reason we have the words swamp creatures,” The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Trump did not close the door on Barnette having a bright future in the party, presumably if she makes a mea culpa and explains her past.
Barnette worked closely in the campaign with Mastriano, which heightened the fear among some GOP insiders of an unelectable top of the ticket.
It would be “an insurmountable political problem,” DiSarro said. He believes the effort to block Barnette was “too late and isn’t likely to have an impact.”
Is Fetterman ready for prime time?
Fetterman seems to be set to win big in the Democratic primary for the US Senate. He matches up best against McCormick and Oz, using their wealth as a backdrop for his progressive Democrat agenda. Fetterman and Oz would be like two left-handed boxers duking it out.
But Barnette would be hard for Fetterman to handle if they both win. His brash style and odd manner of dressing in work shirts and cargo shorts are part of his image. Trump recently called Fetterman “a crazed lunatic Democrat,” which he would view as a badge of honor
Will the leaked draft of a US, Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade boost Democratic turnout.
A few isolated primary races on Tuesday could be affected by the leaked draft, but the real question is whether anger among abortion rights supporters can counter the predicted red tide in November, where angry Republicans are expected to flock to the polls?
Since World War II, 17 midterm elections have favored the party out of power; just two didn’t follow that pattern, said G. Terry Madonna, Senior Fellow in Residence for Political Affairs at Millersville University. Those were 2002 and 1998.
Despite a climate of an inflation economy and the typical midterm advantage, “The Republican Party is in a bit of a jam,” DiSarro said.
By that he means, are the party’s nominees too extreme to win?
Will Lancaster County retain its clout in the General Assembly?
Rep. Bryan Cutler and Sen. Ryan Aument are facing primary challengers who contend the two men didn’t do enough to prevent President Biden from being certified as the winner in Pennsylvania.
Mike Miller is running against Aument in the 36th Senate District, while Anne Weston is challenging Cutler in the 100th Legislative District.
Miller, a financial adviser, and Weston, a chiropractic assistant, are supported by Audit The Vote PA, a group dedicated to proving the unprovable – that Trump actually won Pennsylvania in 2020.
Aument is now Senate GOP Caucus Secretary, the fifth highest ranking post, but he has a shot at moving up when Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Center County, leaves at the end of this year.
Cutler, as House speaker, is the top elected official in the chamber.
If one or both loses, the county’s clout in the Capitol will be diminished.
> Bumsted is Harrisburg bureau chief of The Caucus, LNP’s publication covering state government and politics.