Pennsylvania’s Republican primary races for governor and U.S. Senate have been tough affairs, with infighting between fields crowded with GOP candidates and millions of dollars poured in to fund a barrage of attack ads.
On the Democratic side, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has built a sizable lead in the polls in the party’s primary race for the U.S. Senate, but opponents have launched attacks that Republicans believe will adopt and use against him. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, unopposed in the Democratic primary race for governor, will come out of the primary relatively unscathed and without having to dip too deep into his campaign funds.
These different paths to party nominations could change the dynamics of the general election in the fall, experts say.
Veteran political consultant Christopher Nicholas said the infighting has helped less traditional candidates rise in the polls, but those candidates may find it harder to win in the general election, where attracting more moderate voters could be key to winning. victory because they “have opinions that are far outside the norm of their respective parties.
“It will make for a fun general election,” Nicholas said, “but the Democrats have to win independents, and on the Republican side, they have to bring in some Democrats.”
Millions of dollars were poured in and Pennsylvanians were bludgeoned by attack ads against two Republican Senate candidates: TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz and former hedge fund CEO Dave McCormick. This created an opening for conservative commentator Kathy Barnette to rise in the polls, which, in turn, led Republican influencers such as former President Trump to criticize Barnette in the final week of the race.
The GOP governor’s primary had nine candidates until the final days of the campaign, when State Senator Jake Corman and former U.S. Representative Melissa Hart dropped out and threw their support behind former U.S. Representative Lou Barletta of Hazelton.
The crowded field led to the challengers feuding among themselves, with GOP leaders staying largely out of the fray. Experts said it gave far-right candidate Doug Mastriano a path to establish a lead in the polls, followed by Barletta, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain and former Delaware County Councilman David White.
In-party attacks come in a cycle with a lot at stake for both sides. The outcome of Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race could determine who controls the upper house in 2023. And Republicans have a rare opportunity for a trifecta in state government if they secure the governor’s mansion.
Usually, in such important races, the hard knocks are reserved for the general election campaign, as the parties want to avoid hurting a candidate they will have to support in the fall.
As such, this contentious primary has political and campaign pundits agreeing that a general election is going to be a tougher lift, especially among Republicans.
“It’s a good strategy in a midterm primary but a bad strategy in a general election,” said Alison Dagnes, professor of political science at the University of Shippensburg. “It works great with the base but not when you’re trying to get 50% plus one vote you need overall.”
GOP race for the US Senate
Ad tracker Medium Buying said the Republican Senate primary drew more than $53 million in TV and radio ads. Most of these ads were from Oz and McCormick, with Oz trying to link McCormick to investments his former hedge fund made in China and McCormick trying to paint Oz as a fake conservative who supports abortion and gun restrictions. fire.
Those attacks hurt two candidates who otherwise look like general election candidates and advanced the idea that McCormick and Oz are superficial, Dagnes said.
“Nobody believes Dave McCormick rides a motorcycle,” Dagnes said, referring to one of McCormick’s commercials. “It feels inauthentic, and Oz also feels inauthentic.”
As these two candidates criticize each other, Dagnes said, it has created a vacuum for Barnette to rise in the polls. A Trafalgar Group poll released last week had Barnette at 23%, just behind Oz at 25% and ahead of McCormick at 22%. The poll’s margin of error was 3%.
Barnette’s push led many in the GOP, including Trump, to try to discredit her. Barnette’s background was largely ignored during the race, but his push has resurrected some of his past statements, including homophobic tweets and past criticism of Trump when he was a presidential candidate in 2016.
Trump released a statement on Thursday saying Barnette “can never win a general election” and that Oz has the best chance of winning in the fall.
Duquesne University political science professor Lew Irwin said authenticity is what Republican primary voters are looking for, but in a general election, a cross-call is needed.
He said suburban voters in Allegheny County and Philadelphia are the ones who will decide the election because, numerically, that’s where the most voters live. Although Allegheny County reliably voted Democratic, it provided more votes for Trump in 2020 than any county in the state.
“The problem for the candidates is appealing to those suburban Republican voters who are going to decide the outcome in the fall,” Irwin said.
GOP gubernatorial race
Another potential issue for Republicans plays out in the GOP race for governor, though it has garnered less attention than the high-profile Senate race.
With less attention, there was less involvement from Republican leaders and the field remained crowded. Dagnes said the more traditional Republican candidates in the field had split support, bolstering support for the most far-right candidate in the field, Mastriano, a state senator from Franklin County. Some have criticized Mastriano for his ties to far-right groups affiliated with the QAnon conspiracy theory, and he was subpoenaed by Congress in connection with the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill.
Irwin said whichever GOP candidate emerges from the primary will likely have to move to the center on some issues to appeal to swing voters.
Dagnes said it would be more difficult for more conservative candidates such as Mastriano and Barnette to move to the center because it could chill support from hardline conservatives and appear inauthentic among the suburban moderates they are trying to win over.
“It is possible that two of the more extreme candidates will win, Mastriano and Barnette, and the pivot to the middle is not going to come easily by these two candidates,” she said.
Fetterman led throughout the Democratic Senate race, despite multiple attacks from his two main opponents, U.S. Representative Conor Lamb of Mount Lebanon and Philadelphia State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta.
Both criticized an episode in which Fetterman, shotgun in hand, confronted a black jogger he suspected of being involved in nearby shootings. Lamb also tried to make Fetterman a socialist.
Irwin said the attacks haven’t gained much traction in the Democratic race. The latest Franklin & Marshall College poll has Fetterman, the former mayor of Braddock, up 39 percentage points. Fetterman appears to have capitalized on his successful run for lieutenant governor in 2018 and used the office to gain exposure among voters, Irwin said.
Fetterman has also raised the most money and spent by far the most on ads of any Democratic candidate.
If Fetterman wins the Democratic nomination, Irwin expects Republicans to attack him and try to label him a socialist or too liberal for Pennsylvania. The effectiveness of this approach depends on who the GOP nominee is, he said.
If the GOP nominee can’t genuinely move to the center and focus the race on inflation, gas prices and a return to post-pandemic normalcy, instead of voter fraud allegations, then Fetterman will likely benefit, Irwin said.
“The real battleground is for the 5% to 10% of the electorate who can really go either way,” Irwin said.
Meanwhile, Shapiro, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, was unopposed in the primary, allowing him to stay focused on many of the general election-related topics Irwin mentioned.
Dagnes said Shapiro’s vulnerability depends on who the GOP nominee is because he has yet to face many attacks. She said a candidate like Barletta, seen as more moderate than Mastriano, could cause her more problems in a general election.
Shapiro seems to think the same way. Last week he published a announcement essentially stimulating Mastriano comparing him to Trump. The ad highlights Mastriano’s role in drafting a “heartbeat bill” that seeks to ban abortions after about six weeks after conception. He claims Mastriano would also ban abortion, saying Mastriano “wants to end mail-in voting and he led the fight to audit the 2020 election.”
The announcement ends with: “If Mastriano wins, it’s a victory for what Donald Trump stands for.”