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GOP fears Mastriano redux as party zeroes in on McCormick in Pennsylvania

By Al Weaver,

2023-03-15

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The prospect of a Pennsylvania Senate bid by state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R) has Republicans feeling a sense of déjà vu and reigniting fears that he could cost them up and down the ballot.

The state and national GOP machinery is lining up solidly behind David McCormick, who was narrowly defeated in the 2022 Senate primary, believing he’s the party’s only chance to defeat Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) in what could be a tough presidential cycle.

Put simply, it’s McCormick or bust for Republicans in Pennsylvania and in the U.S. Senate.

They worry that absent McCormick, the primary could be wide open and lead to a repeat of the contest that got Mastriano nominated for governor last year, a race he ultimately lost by double digits.

“A lot of people want him to run. Put it that way,” former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) told The Hill about McCormick, who he is encouraging to run. “I think Pennsylvanians have learned a lesson here, and lesson is you go with candidates that are strong principled conservatives that don’t have baggage that can hurt you in a general election. … Tying yourself to the [stolen] election stuff and tying yourself too close to Trump is destructive. It hurt the entire ticket [in 2022].”

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Republicans see David McCormick as their only chance of defeating Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

The door to a possible Mastriano Senate bid swung open last week when he said in an interview that he is “praying” about a potential campaign only months after a 15-point defeat to Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) in the race for the top job in Harrisburg.

On top of the loss, Mastriano has received plenty of blame for the GOP’s losses in the state last year, which include Sen. John Fetterman’s (D-Pa.) win over Mehmet Oz and a trio of key House contests that were all won by Democrats.

“Usually, when you get your pants taken down on a statewide scale, a race that has national attention, you don’t want to go for it again because there’s some level of embarrassment people feel,” one Pennsylvania-based GOP operative told The Hill. “That’s clearly not the case with him. I think he lives in his own la-la land. … He’s a lost cause.”

The operative said a Mastriano run could cause issues for McCormick even if McCormick eventually prevails. Mastriano could pull the 2022 Senate candidate to the right of where Pennsylvania general election voters sit. McCormick and outside groups could be forced to spend money they will need to battle Casey. And a bruising primary battle could alienate the hardcore conservative voters McCormick would also need in November.

Senate Democrats take aim at McCormick ahead of possible Casey challenge

“That’s ridiculous,” Rob Gleason, the former Republican Party of Pennsylvania chairman, said about the idea of a possible Mastriano bid. “He had his chance to be a statewide candidate and he failed. Not only did he fail, but he took a lot of people down with him.”

He added he believes a Mastriano candidacy would be a “non-starter” with many GOP voters.

Still, a survey by Public Policy Polling, a Democratic outfit, released Monday showed Mastriano leading McCormick in a hypothetical match-up, 39 percent to 21 percent. Kathy Barnette, who said on Tuesday that she “has not made a decision” about a campaign of her own, pulled in 11 percent, while 29 percent said they weren’t sure.

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State Sen. Doug Mastriano. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Pennsylvania GOP sources were nonplussed by the poll, arguing Mastriano’s lead could be attributed to simple name recognition from being on the ballot four months ago, while McCormick has been out of the public consciousness since early last summer.

Meanwhile, McCormick was back in the news this week after his book was released on Tuesday, prompting a wave of attacks from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee .

McCormick told radio host Hugh Hewitt on Monday that he is still undecided on a bid and remains unsure whether a “happy warrior,” as he describes himself, can win in this climate of American politics.

That isn’t deterring Sen. Steve Daines (Mont.), chairman of the Senate GOP campaign arm, and the Senate Leadership Fund, both of which have signaled support for McCormick if he takes the 2024 plunge. McCormick was also the featured speaker at the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s winter meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., last month.

“Dave McCormick would be a great candidate in Pennsylvania,” Daines said in a statement.

Multiple Republicans say they are optimistic McCormick learned from his mistakes as a candidate in 2022, including how to sell his message to voters. McCormick admitted there were a couple of issues that were tough for him to deal with as a first-time candidate — namely that it’s “hard to talk” about complex matters in 30-second soundbites and that he wasn’t comfortable talking about himself.

“You’ve got to talk about yourself and say, ‘Hey, this is how great I am, this is why I could be great for Pennsylvania,’” McCormick told Hewitt. “That wasn’t a natural thing for me.”

Senator Bob Casey mum on potential 2024 re-election bid

Republicans are also optimistic about McCormick’s chances against Mastriano, noting he has millions to spend on TV ads and his operation. McCormick spent more than $14 million on last year’s Senate primary contest in roughly five months. Mastriano was outspent 30 to 1 by Shapiro and received little outside financial support.

The eventual nominee is expected to take on Casey, the three-term incumbent who is expected to seek reelection and will be a tough target for any Republican to defeat.

“He sort of keeps his head down. He doesn’t fly in the national press very often. Generally speaking, if you’re a senator who flies under the radar you have a much better chance of getting reelected,” said Santorum, whom Casey defeated to originally win his seat in 2006.

“He shows up when he’s supposed to show up,” Santorum said, referring to Casey’s response to the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. “He’s low key. No one really knows too much about what Bobby Casey has done or how he votes, and he likes it that way.”

As for the incumbent Democrat, he demurred when asked what he thought of a possible Mastriano run for his seat.

“I try not to get in their way when they’re having interesting, intraparty debates,” Casey said with a laugh. “Is that a good answer?”

While it remains a question whether McCormick can be the remedy to defeat Casey, many Republicans are certain Mastriano is not the answer.

“When I prayed that Mastriano would leave Pennsylvania, I didn’t mean it that way,” a second Pennsylvania-based GOP operative quipped.

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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