Mastriano's appeal beyond base at question as Pa. governor election transitions

May 19—HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania's primary electors chose the mid-term matchup for this fall's gubernatorial election, pitting Republican Doug Mastriano against Democrat Josh Shapiro.

Election observers say it's a matchup Democrats had hoped for, though, there's reason to pause as to whether history may repeat itself.

Mastriano's base is built on conservative, Evangelical voters — the same voters former President Donald Trump courted with success in 2016. There are doubts as to whether Mastriano's far-right messaging will appeal to moderates and swing voters, the same doubts Trump faced before winning The White House.

"Make no mistake about it, it was the Trump base that pushed Mastriano into the nomination victory," said G. Terry Madonna, senior fellow of political affairs at Millersville University. "Democrats want to run against him because they think he can't broaden his appeal. He is where he is because that's what he firmly believes. He's not going to change his positions, he's not going to modify them."

Mastriano emerged from a nine-candidate field in the primary, grabbing 44% of the vote according to unofficial returns from the Department of State.

Shapiro's campaign already targeted Mastriano before polls opened Tuesday, making the unusual move of advertising this month against the Franklin County state senator in such a manner that it appeared intended to motivate Republicans to choose him and warn Democrats about what's at stake from their perspective this fall.

The same themes the 30-second clip hit on, Mastriano proudly espoused on the campaign trail and at his post-primary party Tuesday night.

Mastriano is staunchly anti-abortion, supporting an outright ban with no exceptions. He's turned against expanded vote-by-mail, pledging to repeal the practice that first began in 2020. He continues to question the legitimacy of the 2020 election. And, he proudly accepted Trump's endorsement, even if it was late-arriving.

The two candidates find themselves on opposite sides of issues not targeted in the commercial, too: school choice, transgender rights, COVID-19 mitigation.

Higher turnout Turnout is higher in general election compared to primaries. The latter tends to attract the more engaged voters while the former lives up to its "general" moniker, beckoning participation from voters typically less engaged in politics.

That's one challenge Mastriano will have to overcome if he wishes to succeed Gov. Tom Wolf in office — how to expand his appeal beyond his base.

There were more than 8.7 million voters registered ahead of Tuesday's primary. Democrats had topped Republicans by more than 550,000. Another 1.2 million voters belong to neither party. Voter registration reopened Wednesday.

"The Democrats, they think he's the easiest candidate for them to beat. I think they sincerely believe of all the Republicans running, that (Mastriano) would give them the best chance to win. It's a risky bet, though, because we don't know what the electorate's going to look like," said Berwood Yost, who oversees political polling conducted at Franklin & Marshall College.

Multiple polls completed by Franklin & Marshall dating to August 2020 show little variance — about 8 in 10 respondents believe abortion should be legal, even with certain restrictions. A Supreme Court decision that could open the door to bans in at least half the country is expected in the coming months.

The economy including unemployment, personal finances and gas prices remains the largest concern among poll participants while worries over COVID-19 saw a dramatic drop since last summer.

"On a purely political calculus basis, (Mastriano's) positions are such that it may be easier to paint him as out of step with most Pennsylvania voters," Yost said.

J. Wesley Leckrone, Widener University professor of political science and public administration, wondered whether concerns over masking in schools or vaccine mandates at the workplace will continue to resonate this fall as it had in the 2021 municipal elections.

This and the matter of school choice could play well in the Philadelphia-area suburbs where there's a cache of potential swing voters Shapiro and Democrats are counting on, Leckrone said. Mastriano's cultural conservatism won't likely be as widely appealing in those parts, he added.

"What plays well in Adams County does not play well in Montgomery County or Delaware County," Leckrone said.

Madonna, Yost and Leckrone all said they expect establishment Republicans to stand behind Mastriano in the general election despite in-fighting over his electability in the run-up to the primary. How enthusiastic that support will be remains to be seen.