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REPORT: Crowded Field and Trump Litmus Tests Make for “Chaotic” Pennsylvania GOP Primary
Today, NBC News published a new report exposing chaos in the Pennsylvania GOP primary for governor as the fourteen candidates struggle to balance electability against Donald Trump’s far-right litmus tests.
“In interviews, the candidates, their strategists and other close observers painted the picture of a tricky, potentially chaotic race,” NBC reported. “Catering to the pro-Trump wing could yield a primary winner by plurality who appeals less to the wider November electorate.”
The entire field has leaned into the Big Lie and other extremist conspiracy theories to appease Trump and his base, with Doug Mastriano even receiving a subpoena from the bipartisan investigation into January 6th. But the party is increasingly divided as “candidates have escalated their attacks on one another in recent weeks.”
And several Pennsylvania GOP insiders worry that the Trump litmus tests and crowded field will continue to boost Doug Mastriano, who leads in some polls.
“There’s a sense among the candidates as well as donors and a lot of people in the party that Mastriano has a message that sells in the primary,” a GOP strategist told NBC, “but it’s not going to work in the general election.”
Read key excerpts from the article below.
At a debate last month for Republicans running to be Pennsylvania’s next governor, candidates were asked whether they believed President Joe Biden legitimately won the state in 2020.
Most danced around the question by acknowledging that Biden is the current president or praising former President Donald Trump while vowing to tighten the state’s election laws before the next presidential election in 2024. Only one of the eight hopefuls onstage offered the yes-or-no response that had been requested.
“No, Joe Biden is not the legitimate winner … ” long-shot John Ventre began, his words immediately smothered by whistles and cheers from the audience in western Pennsylvania.
The moment underscored the quandary Pennsylvania Republicans find themselves in as they try to reclaim the governor’s mansion in a presidential battleground state that Biden won narrowly and Trump has made central to his debunked claims of a stolen election.
A dozen candidates are fighting for the nomination, many striving for a blend of conservative ideals and electability that can be tough to balance against Trump’s grievances and election lies. Trump, who is teasing another run in 2024, has a keen interest in a state where the governor — not the voters — picks a secretary of state to administer elections. He could be a disruptive force in the primary, even if he doesn’t endorse a candidate.
“Sometimes,” Trump said in a video message to Pennsylvania Republicans that played before last month’s debate, “the vote counter is more important than the candidate.”
In interviews, the candidates, their strategists and other close observers painted the picture of a tricky, potentially chaotic race. Catering to the pro-Trump wing could yield a primary winner by plurality who appeals less to the wider November electorate. And candidates have escalated their attacks on one another in recent weeks. The state party, for the first time since the 1970s, has declined to endorse a candidate for governor before the primary. Democrats, meanwhile, already have a presumptive nominee in Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who has crossover appeal and a national reputation built in part by pushing back against Trump’s election lies.
Several of the leading GOP candidates have burnished credentials that matter to Trump.
Former Rep. Lou Barletta, a hard-liner on immigration, was listed as a so-called alternate elector in Trump allies’ strategy to overturn the 2020 election — an illegitimate effort to send a completing slate of electors to Congress to stop the ascertainment of Biden’s win. State Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman is overseeing the Legislature’s election investigation. Bill McSwain, who was the Trump administration’s U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, has sought Trump’s endorsement by raising vague allegations of voter fraud. Then there is state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who was outside the U.S. Capitol last year when a pro-Trump mob overran it and who was recently subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the riot.
Mastriano’s rise worries some in the state’s GOP establishment.
“There’s a sense among the candidates as well as donors and a lot of people in the party that Mastriano has a message that sells in the primary but it’s not going to work in the general election,” said Vince Galko, a Pennsylvania GOP strategist who is neutral in the primary. “So there’s the fear overtaking everyone that everyone out there is going to split the vote and Mastriano is going to win this thing with 24 percent of the vote.”
Teddy Daniels, a GOP candidate for lieutenant governor who is aligned with Mastriano, agreed that a packed primary makes it much easier for him to win.
“The party is split,” said Daniels, who, like Mastriano, was outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. “In Pennsylvania, you have your swampy establishment, pre-Trump-type politicians. And then you have post-Trump. I call it the ‘America First’ movement. And Doug is the only one that’s in that lane.”
When Republican candidates for governor do address the election issues, it is often in the context of Act 77, a package of voting changes that passed the GOP-controlled Legislature in 2019. The bill expanded mail-in balloting, a practice that became a prime target of 2020 election deniers after Biden’s narrow win over Trump. Wolf has appealed a recent state court ruling that the law is unconstitutional. GOP leaders, including those who once supported Act 77, have since called for its repeal. Corman and Mastriano are among those who voted for it as state senators but have since criticized the law.
Shapiro accused his Republican challengers in an interview last month of “lying repeatedly” to Pennsylvanians.
“Each of the people running against me have demonstrated a profound personal weakness,” he said. “They have spines made of spaghetti, and they are showing that they would rather pander and promote the big lie than speak truth.”
Trump could shake up the race with an endorsement, but those invested in the race who spoke with NBC News said they don’t see him doing so at this time. Some noted how his endorsement of Sean Parnell in the state’s GOP Senate primary blew up when Parnell left the race after he lost a custody battle for his children amid allegations of abuse by his estranged wife. Others said that because both Barletta and Mastriano are seen as loyal supporters, it’s less likely Trump would boost one over the other.
“I don’t think he’s going to make an endorsement, because frankly, a lot of these candidates have ties to him in one respect or another,” Capozzi said. “I think he made an endorsement for Sean Parnell for the Senate race, and I don’t think that really worked out too well for him. So I think he’s going to keep his powder dry.”