ERIE, Dad. – Republican voters in Pennsylvania, one of the country’s most contentious political battlegrounds, appear to rally behind two far-right candidates for governor and senate who are fueling grassroots anger, railing against the party’s old guard and strengthening of Donald Trump’s stolen election myth.
With less than a week until Tuesday’s primaries in the state, polls show Senator Doug Mastriano – one of the state’s central figures in the former president’s efforts to undo the 2020 election – has emerged. as the clear frontrunner in the GOP race for governor. Senate nominee Kathy Barnette, an underfunded conservative commentator who has never held public office, has suffered a surprising late rise in the contest dominated by two major rivals, Dr. Mehmet Oz and David McCormick.
Mr. Mastriano has made election fraud claims a central part of his bid to lead a state that could be decisive in the 2024 presidential race. Ms. Barnette has a history of inflammatory comments, including: repeatedly called former President Barack Obama a follower of Islam, which she believes should be banned, and wrote derisively about “the gay agenda.” Both candidates have endorsed each other and forged an important alliance.
Now Republicans worry about losing both races in November if primary voters embrace such out-of-the-mainstream candidates.
Several of Mr Mastriano’s Republican rivals have gathered in recent days for private conference calls in a last-minute attempt to stop him. All agree that he would be a hindrance to the party, although Mr Mastriano has not yet undergone serious coordinated attacks. Two rivals, state senator Jake Corman and former Representative Lou Barletta, staged a joint event on Thursday, suggesting the field could soon consolidate, at least somewhat.
Democrats harbor their own fears: that the bleak political climate of 2022 could nevertheless bring Republicans to power who, in a less hostile climate, may appear unelectable.
“Like a lot of Democrats, I’m schizophrenic in this – I support the crazy person because it gives us the best chance of winning. But at the same time, it could make us a crazy senator or a crazy governor, or both,” said Mike Mikus, a Pennsylvania Democratic strategist.
Pennsylvania has been one of the country’s quintessential swing states for years, where the clearest path to power has been a middle ground between the Democratic and Republican parties. This year’s free seats are because Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican, is retiring and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has a limited term.
“Pennsylvania isn’t really good at that extreme on either side,” said Rob Gleason, a former chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party who was one of Trump’s main supporters in the state in 2016 but is now concerned. about Mr. Mastriano in 2022. “Whatever you say, it’s kind of a down-the-middle state.”
In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of state, the position that oversees the state elections, meaning whoever wins the governorship will oversee the governance of one of the most coveted swing states in the 2024 presidential race.
For months, the Senate race was primarily seen as a heavyweight bout between Dr. Oz, the television personality, and Mr. McCormick, the former CEO of the world’s largest hedge fund. Together, they and their allies have spent nearly $40 million on television commercials.
Ms. Barnette, who ran to the house in a suburb of Philadelphia in 2020 and lost nearly 20 percentage points, had scored somewhere between afterthought and asterisk in the race until recently. But a Fox News poll on Tuesday showed the race a virtual three-way split.
To date, Mrs. Barnette’s growth has been almost entirely organic, fueled by her sharp debate performances, conservative media appearances, and compelling life story, which she told in her book, “Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: Being Black and Conservative in America.” .”
A “byproduct of a rape,” as she describes herself, when her mother was only 11, Ms. Barnette talks about growing up “on a pig farm” in Alabama with no running water and how her success represents the kind of American dream story that is now in jeopardy.
In the final week, Ms. Barnette is getting some crucial institutional support: the endorsement of the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List on Tuesday and a $2 million TV ad blitz funded by the Club for Growth, which will lift her up from the -bootstraps statewide message.
The Club for Growth, one of the largest lenders in Republican politics, recently fell out with Mr. Trump after he ran ads attacking Ohio Republican Senate candidate JD Vance, even after Mr. Trump killed him. had approved. Mr. Vance won that primary and Mr. Trump has Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania supported.
In a sense, Mrs. Barnette’s candidacy is a test of whether the movement Mr. Trump elected has taken on a life of its own. “MAGA does not belong to President Trump,” Ms. Barnette said in a debate in April.
Both Dr. Oz as Mr. McCormick, the supporters of Mr. Trump courted, though it was an uneasy match. dr. Oz was booed at a Trump rally, Mr. McCormick was turned down by Mr. Trump, and both have dealt with carpet bags in a state where they haven’t lived full-time recently.
Mrs. Barnette has presented herself as an authentic and unfiltered version of what the Republican base wants. “Listen, this time you don’t have to hold your nose and vote for the lesser of two evils,” she said during another debate.
She has also made it clear that there will be no pivot to the middle if she makes it to the fall campaign.
“There’s a long tradition that we want to see a moderate Republican coming out of the primary — someone who’s tasty — for the general,” she said in an interview at a candidate forum in eastern Pennsylvania Wednesday night. “How did that work out for them? It didn’t work out really well.”
In the run for governor, the presumptive Democratic nominee, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, last week began running television ads with a narrator touting Mr Mastriano’s conservative credentials: “If Mastriano wins, that’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for.” stands.” Mr Trump has not endorsed that contest.
On Tuesday, Mr. Mastriano campaigned in Erie, Pa., with Jenna Ellis, the former co-counselor for the Trump campaign’s bid to undo the 2020 election.
“Doug Mastriano, I like to say, is the Donald Trump of Pennsylvania,” said Ms. Ellis.
Mr. Mastriano was a key figure in Mr. Trump’s attempt to reverse the results in Pennsylvania, a state he lost by 81,000 votes. As a freshman senator, he held a hearing with Ms. Ellis and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani in November 2020, visited the White House shortly after, and remained in close contact with the Trump team.
He posted an event on Facebook on January 6, 2021 featuring bus rides to Washington, and his campaign reported that he spent at least $3,000 chartering buses. But he has claimed that he left before the protest turned violent. In Erie, Mr Mastriano, whose campaign did not respond to requests for comment, defended the rally.
“It’s like, God have mercy on your soul if you dare to go and exercise your First Amendment freedom to go to DC on January 6?” said Mr. Mastiano. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”
Among those quietly vying to unite Republicans around an alternative to Mr. Mastriano, is Andy Reilly, one of Pennsylvania’s three Republican National Committee members. Mr Reilly, who has not supported the race, said the Shapiro campaign’s ads had “raised concerns” and sparked discussions.
“The fact that the Democrats are running pro-Mastriano ads tells us they believe he would be the weakest candidate,” said Charlie Gerow, a longtime Republican agent from Pennsylvania who is running for governor and polls are in the low single digits. .
Interviewed while stumbling into an Erie bakery, Mr. Barletta, a former congressman who defeated a Democratic incumbent leader in 2010, called himself the strongest Mastriano alternative.
“It’s been me with Doug Mastriano,” Mr Barletta said at the top of every poll. “Now people have to make a decision, and a lot of those undecided have to look at who they think has a better chance of beating Josh Shapiro.”
Bill McSwain, who served as the US attorney for Eastern Pennsylvania during the Trump administration, is also active and has spent as much on television as the rest of the field combined, according to AdImpact, a media tracking company. But he is also the only candidate in the race to be attacked by Mr. Trump.
“Don’t vote for Bill McSwain, a coward, who has let down our country,” Mr Trump said in a statement last month attacking Mr McSwain for failing to adequately address Mr Trump’s false claims about electoral fraud in Pennsylvania. pressured.
Mr Gleason, the former party chairman, supports Mr McSwain anyway, fearing Mr Mastriano would lose a general election. “It would be poisonous,” he said.
Representative Brendan Boyle, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, said he was approached on the House floor this week by colleagues from other states who were excited that Republicans could pick two such far-right nominees. But he said he remembers 2010, when seemingly ineligible Tea Party Republicans won, and then 2016, when Mr. Trump carried Pennsylvania and the presidency.
“I should be happy that Republicans seem to be on their way to ruining both races,” said Mr Boyle. But, he added, “I’m very nervous that, lo and behold, two Republican extremists would be elected governor and senator.”
For her part, Ms. Barnette, who appeared this week on the podcast of former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, dismissed Republican concerns that she was “too MAGA” to win in November.
“Do these people have a crystal ball?” she asked. “Are they the incarnate Jesus? How do they know that?”
Tracey Tully contributed reporting from Newtown, Pa.