Even in these days of heavy straight-ticket voting and partisan polarization, candidate quality still matters. There are always a few clunkers capable of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. This year, several are contending for the title of “worst candidate in a competitive state,” but none has a political death wish quite like Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, whose underwhelming campaign and background of almost comically numerous extremist connections have made Democratic attorney general Josh Shapiro a strong favorite in the governor’s race despite the Keystone State’s evenly divided electorate.
Mastriano, a retired Army officer, won a state senate special election in south-central Pennsylvania in 2019, and like obscure right-wing political figures elsewhere, gained fame as an opponent of COVID restrictions. He built a strong online following, which was augmented by his prominence in MAGA election-denial circles (he urged Pennsylvania’s legislature to usurp the state’s Electoral College slate on Trump’s behalf and was in Washington on January 6, 2021, though apparently did not enter the Capitol). Running for governor, he benefited from a large and scattered field of opponents and a late Trump endorsement. He also got some help from his future opponent, Shapiro, who, in one of the earliest examples of a much-emulated and controversial Democratic tactic, ran ads warning Mastriano was “too conservative for Pennsylvania” that were clearly designed to make GOP primary voters warm to him.
Soon after his primary victory, all sorts of toxic details from Mastriano’s past came drifting into public view. There was his connection to a social-media site run by a notorious antisemite. There was his long-standing association with Christian nationalist ideas. There was his extreme version of 2020 election denialism, made especially problematic by the fact that Pennsylvania governors appoint the state’s election officials. There were images of him dressed up in a Confederate uniform — which he chose to wear in an Army War College faculty photo — in 2017. And there were his past policy positions, most notably a proposal to charge women who violated an abortion ban he was proposing with murder. It even turns out that Mastriano might have been registered to vote in New Jersey as recently as July 2021.
If Mastriano’s campaign were minimally competent, none of that might matter so much in a highly partisan midterm-election year. But it’s not, as the New York Times reported earlier this week:
In the same spot where he spoke to thousands of people at a raucous State Capitol rally demanding an end to pandemic restrictions in April 2020, Doug Mastriano appeared on Saturday before a crowd of just a few dozen — about half of whom were volunteers for his ragtag campaign for governor of Pennsylvania.
He has raised very little money (unlike Shapiro), and the Republican Governors Association, which plays a big financial role in many gubernatorial races, has no plans to help him. His refusal to talk to any media folks who have ever criticized him is making it easy for even conservative journalists to write him off: For example, the famous Pennsylvania-based columnist Salena Zito has called Mastriano a “disaster” and recently wrote a puff piece praising Shapiro.
So even as Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz is showing some signs of life in his struggle to catch up with John Fetterman, Mastriano seems to be losing ground. The handicappers at Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball just moved the contest from “leans Democratic” to “likely Democratic,” which really means noncompetitive.
But we should beware: If the prevailing winds shift again nationally and the pro-Republican wave originally expected in November takes shape, weird things could happen. A mid-September poll from Trafalgar Group — which regularly boasts of its relative accuracy in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections — showed Shapiro leading Mastriano by just two points, within the margin of error. It’s unlikely Pennsylvania’s master of disaster will be its next governor, but stranger things have happened in American politics, most notably one victory and one narrow loss for Mastriano’s ally in Mar-a-Lago.
The candidate himself seems to have settled on divine intervention as his ace in the hole, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer:
On Monday night, Mastriano’s campaign posted on Facebook a photo of two hands under the words “40 days of fasting & prayer” with the dates Sept. 29 through Nov. 8 — Election Day. “Interceding for our elections, our state, and our nation,” it stated, along with a verse from the Book of Isaiah.
Perhaps a prayer to St. Jude, the patron of lost causes, would be appropriate if things don’t get better.
More on the 2022 midterms
- New Midterms Data Reveals Good News for Democrats in 2024
- The Return of the Emerging Democratic Majority?
- Trump May Be a Repeat ‘Loser,’ But He’s Good at GOP Primaries