Conservatives Who Tried to Derail Doug Mastriano’s Pennsylvania Primary Bid Consider Supporting Him in November

After spending millions trying to defeat Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano in the lead-up to last month’s Pennsylvania primary, an influential conservative political group is now considering backing him in the general election against Democratic nominee and state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

The decision underscores the position some Republicans in the Keystone State now find themselves in after the victory by Mastriano, a far-right state representative whose unrelenting focus on the 2020 presidential election led Republican donors and lawmakers to question his electability in a November matchup against Shapiro.

In one sense, it’s not surprising that a conservative organization is considering endorsing the GOP nominee for governor. But a Mastriano endorsement ahead of November would be quite the turnaround for Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs. The Harrisburg-based conservative organization is connected with a political action committee that spent millions in the months leading up to the crowded primary backing GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill McSwain in the hopes that he could defeat Mastriano, who Commonwealth Partners leaders didn’t see as a viable general election candidate. 

But in the weeks leading up to the primary, Mastriano’s polling lead grew. Then came what Commonwealth Partners took to be the final death knell for McSwain’s campaign: On May 14, President Donald Trump officially endorsed Mastriano.

“I urged Bill to drop out at that point because I thought that it was going to be the end of his ability to climb in the polls,” Matt Brouillette, Commonwealth Partners’ president and CEO, told The Dispatch last week before meeting with Mastriano.

With three days left until the May 17 primary, the Republican organization was at a crossroads: It could stick with McSwain, or pick another candidate who might be better-positioned to defeat Mastriano. 

On May 16, the organization announced that it would rescind its endorsement of McSwain and instead rally behind GOP candidate Lou Barletta, who had for weeks been the runner-up to Mastriano in the polls. “No other organization has come close to spending the millions our connected political action committee has spent to educate voters about the dangers of a Mastriano nomination,” the organization said in a press release.

Needless to say the effort didn’t pan out. On May 17, Mastriano sailed to victory with 44 percent of the Republican primary vote. Barletta ended up trailing him by 24 points.

Now Commonwealth Partners is deciding whether the GOP gubernatorial nominee has what it takes to defeat Shapiro in November. Brouillette met with Mastriano last Thursday, and said in an interview this week that Commonwealth Partners is considering endorsing his campaign if he can prove he has swing voter appeal.

“We would certainly hope we could get behind a Mastriano effort, but he’s gonna have to show us that he’s viable and able to beat Josh,” Brouillette told The Dispatch on Wednesday. “He certainly believes he has tapped into a groundswell of dissatisfied voters and believes that it stretches beyond Republicans and into independents and Democrats. I’m gonna have to be shown that that is true.”

But appealing to swing voters is no simple feat for a candidate who spent the months leading up to the primary reportedly barring reporters from his campaign events and trying to overturn Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results in his capacity as a state senator. Mastriano has also come under fire for spending thousands of dollars last year on charter buses to transport people to the “Save America March” in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, and for being subpoenaed by the House Select Committee investigating the events of that day. 

Mastriano still managed to clinch the nomination in a landslide, despite the handful of influential Pennsylvania-based Republican donors and operatives who were involved in the 11th-hour effort to bolster support for Barletta. Per reporting from the Philadelphia Inquirer, the New York Times, and Politico, those talks also included RNC Committeeman Andy Reilly, Allegheny County GOP Chairman Sam DeMarco, Republican donor Jeff Yass, and former GOP gubernatorial candidate Jake Corman.

It remains to be seen how many of those individuals will campaign for Mastriano ahead of November.

“I don’t think there’s any need to endorse—he’s the nominee,” said Cambria County GOP Chairwoman Jackie Kulback, who also participated in the talks about uniting behind Barletta. 

The topic of endorsements is a dicey subject for Pennsylvania Republicans this election cycle. The state GOP shocked voters this year by deciding via voice vote not to endorse in this year’s Republican primaries for governor and U.S. Senate for the first time in decades. “No endorsement from the party gave the runway for a multi-candidate split where the most radical actors could have success,” one Republican political operative involved in the GOP race to succeed GOP Sen. Pat Toomey told The Dispatch last month.

Kulback said that if Mastriano is serious about winning in the fall, now is the time to start engaging with a larger audience. “He needs to talk to reporters, whether he views them as conservative, liberal, mainstream, because the only way you get your message out is through the press,” she said.

The Mastriano campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

Brouillette said that to win Commonwealth Partners’ endorsement, Mastriano must prove that he won’t spend the entire race trying to re-litigate the 2020 presidential election. Now more than a year since Biden assumed office, Brouillete thinks that focusing on the 2020 election is a losing strategy, and that Pennsylvania voters are more concerned about kitchen-table issues like inflation and keeping schools open.

“The Democrats, of course, want to run against Donald Trump and the big lie, so the question remains to be seen of whether Doug is going to take the bait or not,” Brouillette said last week. “You can’t win the 2020 election. It’s over.”

In some ways, Pennsylvania Democrats already got their wish. Politico reported last month that “Shapiro and the state Democratic Party sent out mailers boosting [Mastriano]” ahead of the primary, a clear indicator that Democrats see him as too extreme to win a general election. 

Brouillette said that anti-Shapiro advertising will remain a priority ahead of November regardless of whether Commonwealth Partners ends up endorsing Mastriano: “We have a plan to educate voters about Josh Shapiro’s progressive agenda for Pennsylvania and certainly intend to do all we can to create an environment that pushes back against the Democrats’ progressive agenda.”

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