Mastriano may be aiming to be a force in US politics [column] | Local Voices

Barring an apocalypse, which many of his supporters predict, state Sen. Doug Mastriano will not be the next governor of Pennsylvania.

No one is trying harder — not even the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro — to make the Republican candidate lose than Mastriano himself is.

According to the Real Clear Politics average of state polls, Shapiro leads Mastriano by 9 to 10 points. If anything, Shapiro appears to be widening his lead.

The Franklin County state senator has taken extreme and unpopular positions on issues. He opposes abortion under any circumstances, same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights. He is a skeptic, if not outright denier, of human-produced climate change.

Tethering himself to Donald Trump, Mastriano falsely asserts that election fraud — unproven in dozens of court cases and independent reviews — was responsible for the former president’s 2020 defeat. Mastriano bused Trump supporters to the Jan. 6, 2021, rally that preceded the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol, and was on the grounds when the Capitol was breached.

If elected, the state senator promises wholesale changes in election administration, wiping the voter rolls clean before the 2024 elections.

Though Mastriano rejects the charge that he is a Christian nationalist, movement leaders consider him a friend. He has troubling connections with far-right militia groups, white supremacists and antisemites.

Rather than moderate his positions or change campaign tactics to appeal to voters outside his narrow base, Mastriano is doubling down on the ideological messages, social media and grassroots organization strategy that won him the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Mastriano refuses to meet with the mainstream press, and his campaign events are closed to reporters. It may be just as well, since his attempted “big rally” on the Pennsylvania Capitol steps in Harrisburg last weekend drew only a few dozen supporters.

Due to Mastriano’s refusal to participate in debates hosted by third parties, such as the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, it is unlikely that a Shapiro-Mastriano debate will take place.

The Republican candidate’s campaign is practically broke, while Shapiro is raising tens of millions of dollars. The GOP establishment, which opposed Mastriano during the primaries, is reluctant to give him money. If not for conservative super PACs running ads against Shapiro, Mastriano would have no broadcast presence at all.

Strapped for cash, Mastriano recently appealed for divine intervention. He called upon his supporters to conduct “40 days of fasting & prayer” leading up to Election Day.

Mastriano’s political behavior suggests that he is more interested in leading a post-Trump movement than in winning an election.

National aspirations?

If this is his real aim (and no one knows, since he doesn’t talk to the press), Mastriano faces stiff competition.

For example, the GOP legislative caucuses in Harrisburg are already pursuing an anti-abortion constitutional amendment. Many Republicans are sympathetic to Mastriano’s plan to convert funds for public schools into vouchers for families to send students to private, religious and charter schools.

In other words, plenty of Pennsylvania politicians think they can deliver Mastriano’s message better than he can without the extremist baggage.

It may well be that Mastriano has national aspirations. No single candidate for a statewide office in this election cycle has received more attention from the national media than he has.

Even if much of the news coverage is negative (and you know what Trump would say about bad publicity versus no publicity), Mastriano can claim to be the ultimate anti-establishment leader among conservatives.

Therefore, lots of folks — Republicans as well as Democrats — want Mastriano to lose and lose big. The pressure is on Shapiro to deliver at least a double-digit victory.

Democrats are even entertaining hopes that Shapiro’s coattails will enable them to seize the majority in one or both houses of the Pennsylvania General Assembly for the first time since 2010.

That will be no easy task, given the national trends predicting significant Republican gains in the midterm elections. President Joe Biden’s unpopularity, inflation, a collapsing stock market and an overwhelming “wrong track” feeling in the electorate — not to mention the perennial tendency of voters from the party out of power to be more motivated to vote — present major challenges to any Democrat seeking higher office. The wild card, of course, is the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, which has energized women voters here and across the country.

Democratic Party candidates have never won three consecutive terms for governor of the commonwealth. It will be difficult for Shapiro, who shares outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf’s strong views in favor of reproductive health and human rights, to separate himself from the current administration.

Though Wolf and Shapiro have substantial records of accomplishment, the governor’s unilateral actions to promote public health during the COVID-19 pandemic remain controversial.

And, it must be noted that past polls have miscalculated support for MAGA candidates.

US Senate race

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Mastriano’s troubles is Mehmet Oz, the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Oz’s race against the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, is, for now, the only game in town. Big money is swinging Oz’s way, and Republican voters are giving him a serious look.

Despite Oz’s stumbling start, Fetterman’s masterful trolling of Oz’s New Jersey connections and credibility problems related to his flip-flopping on issues, Oz appears to have found his footing as a candidate. In some polls, the margin between the two candidates is within the margin of error.

Oz has pulled down Fetterman’s favorable ratings. Like it or not, the cardiothoracic surgeon has raised concerns about the lieutenant governor’s health and fitness for office. Furthermore, Oz’s campaign is driving home the message that Fetterman, who chairs the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, is soft on crime.

There may even be a ricochet effect in which Oz’s surge of support, especially among Republicans, may boost Mastriano.

If Mastriano loses respectably and Oz pulls off an upset, denying the Democrats’ bids to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and perhaps retain control of the U.S. Senate, the state senator and Republicans generally will consider their prayers answered.

E. Fletcher McClellan, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at Elizabethtown College. Twitter: @mcclelef.

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