Republicans are increasingly worried that their chances of winning Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial and Senate races are slipping through their fingers as hard-line candidates surge at the eleventh hour.
Operatives in the state are sounding the alarm that state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the front-runner gubernatorial candidate whose bid is centered around unfounded allegations of vote fraud in 2020, is making the top office in Harrisburg out of reach. And a late boost in the Senate race for conservative commentator Kathy Barnette has sparked worries over the open seat being vacated by Sen. Pat Toomey (R), which is crucial to Republicans’ path to Senate control.
Republicans are particularly concerned that this November’s expected red wave may not lift such firebrand candidates to victory, possibly squandering opportunities to win races that are crucial at the state and federal levels at a time when the GOP plans on going on offense.
“It would be like the voyage of the Titanic, but no survivors,” said one GOP strategist with extensive experience working in Pennsylvania.
The anxieties are reaching a fever pitch in the final days before the Tuesday primary, largely over character concerns, not policy positions.
Mastriano, who has been linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory and whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment, makes repeated references to unsubstantiated claims of electoral wrongdoing without supplementing his bid with tangible platforms. Barnette, meanwhile, has voiced similar concerns over the 2020 race, has made Islamophobic and homophobic remarks and, as scrutiny heightens during her polling surge, has been cagey about her biography.
Should they stumble, they put the GOP on its back foot in two crucial races. Republicans already control both chambers of the state legislature in Pennsylvania but have been stymied by eight years of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. And Barnette is running for what many think could be the seat that decides control of the Senate.
The apprehension turned into action in recent days, with Republicans cobbling together last-ditch efforts to block their paths to the nominations.
Several other Republican gubernatorial campaigns have discussed coalescing behind one alternative to Mastriano, according to several sources familiar with the matter.
Train Rep. Lou Barletta (R) has won a late spree of endorsements from state Sen. Jake Corman and former state Sen. Melissa Hart, two other low-polling candidates who dropped out, as well as Rep. Fred Keller and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
“Lou Barletta is the only candidate who can both unite the party and beat Josh Shapiro,” said Tim Murtaugh, a Barletta adviser.
Still, other major contenders like former US Attorney Bill McSwain and Ridley Township Commissioner Dave White, are sticking it out.
“Bill McSwain has no intention of dropping out,” said McSwain spokesperson Rachel Tripp.
Former President Trump further roiled the gubernatorial Saturday with an endorsement for Mastriano, a final push that could be the nail in the coffin for Mastriano’s opponents and outside detractors.
That hasn’t stopped the conversations, but even participants are conceding that the kind of coalescing they need is nearly impossible.
When asked if candidates will drop out, Sam DeMarco, the chair of the Allegheny County GOP who’s involved in the talks, laughed and replied, “No.”
“Why I’m doing this is because I don’t want to see my party pull a Thelma and Louise and go over the cliff when we have an opportunity in front of us to really put this commonwealth back on a track,” he said .
Republicans’ fears are not just theoretical.
DeMarco tweeted out a polling memo over a survey showing Mastriano uniquely weak against state Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D), who is running virtually unopposed in the Democratic primary. A Fox News poll from this month also showed Mastriano with an 11-point edge over Barletta, compared to a 1-point deficit from March.
And Shapiro is also out with an ad highlighting Mastriano’s conservative track record and ties to Trump in a backhanded bid to boost him in the GOP primary.
“They know who they want to run against, and they’re sharing it with the rest of us, spending money to help make Doug the nominee,” said York County GOP Chair Jeff Piccola, who is backing McSwain. “Shapiro’s ads are the best ads [Mastriano] has.”
Similar concerns are coming to a boil in the Senate race.
Barnette has seen a late surge in the polls, with the recent Fox News survey showing her, celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund manager Dave McCormick knotted up for first place.
On top of that, she won late endorsements from groups like the Club for Growth and Susan B. Anthony List, which plan to spend seven figures and six figures on pro-Barnette ads, respectively.
That out-of-left-field rise has produced a flood of attacks from Republicans trying to boost their own favored candidates in the primary’s home stretch – including the GOP’s de facto leader.
“Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the General Election against the Radical Left Democrats,” Trump, who has endorsed Oz, said in a statement. “A vote for anyone else in the Primary is a vote against Victory in the Fall!”
Her rise also temporarily halted a brutal back-and-forth between Oz and McCormick.
McCormick’s consultants, who spent weeks pummeling Oz, have sent out a spree of releases to reporters highlighting Barnette’s refusal to answer questions about her past military service, professional career and more, and Oz spokesperson Brittany Yanick warned that “Kathy has a clear pattern of trying to cover up and embellish her background.”
Beyond her biography, Barnette has been forced to answer for a string of past comments, including saying that “Pedophilia is a Cornerstone of Islam” and claiming that the “homosexual AGENDA” is seeking “domination.”
A pro-Oz super PAC is also out with a selectively edited ad calling Barnette “Pennsylvania’s wackiest Senate candidate.” Oz also bashed Barnette last week on an appearance on Sean Hannity’s show.
Barnette’s campaign fired back in a statement, calling the barbs misleading.
“The ads are distortions and very vitriolic,” said Barnette campaign manager Bob Gillies. “However, Kathy remains focused, and the campaign will continue to move forward in a positive fashion.”
Still, the flood of attacks that has come out in the span of just a few days has critics sounding the alarm over Barnette’s electability.
“My concern, whether it’s valid or not, is that I want to make sure that she’s been vetted so that we don’t nominate someone that the Democrats are going to dump a truckload of opposition research on right after the election,” DeMarco said . “We know what politics is like today. You want to be comfortable that the person you nominate.”
However, Oz and McCormick have a narrow window to turn voters against Barnette in time for Tuesday.
Given Barnette’s middling status in the field for almost the entire primary, no candidate laid a glove on her. And given that messaging takes time to saturate in voters’ minds, it’s unclear if Barnette’s opponents will be able to disseminate their opposition research widely enough to stop her rise, particularly given the low ceiling needed to win in the crowded field.
“The winner of the primary is going to have two-thirds of Republicans in Pennsylvania voting against them,” said Pennsylvania-born GOP strategist Chris Mottola. “She can absolutely win the nomination. The toughest thing to stop in politics is a surging candidate close to an election.”
Allies of Mastriano and Barnette argue the electability concerns are overblown, maintaining they hold a true connection to the grassroots and that this year’s red tide will soar high enough to lift all boats.
“Even I could win election for governor this year with an R beside my name,” said Gary Smith, the chair of Constitutional Republicans of Western Pennsylvania in Jefferson County. “It’s a tsunami. And the idea that you can’t win in the fall is a bogus, red herring argument.”
Still, even if that’s true, Republicans lament the headache they’re dealing with this close to the primary during a wave year after a string of victories in Pennsylvania.
“It’s frustrating because you’re throwing away an opportunity. You’ve had all these successes, you’ve won the legislature, you won auditor general and treasure with two candidates who got wildly outspent who you never thought could win, and they win, and you think you get the wind at your back, ” said the GOP strategist with experience in Pennsylvania. “And then you basically drop a grenade down your shorts.”