Activist state

Can Doug Mastriano win in a purple state while staying in the right bubble?

Let’s start with Grant Clarkson.

Clarkson was at the capitol on January 6, 2021. He was standing near one of the building’s doors when rioters burst inside. When rioters seized media equipment and destroyed it, Clarkson appeared look and smile.

Just over a year later, Clarkson was once again involved in politics. Now a primary campaign aide to Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Clarkson was filmed prevent the media from accessing a campaign event.

This incident attracted national media attention but apparently did not dent Mastriano’s political support. After all, Mastriano himself was at the Capitol that day, but (as he repeatedly pointed out) not inside. Mastriano won the primary by 23 points. His decision to nestle in the universe of right and keep the big reporters at bay paid – or, at least, did not hurt him.

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It is not uncommon for candidates to strive to appeal to the poles of their party as they bid to win a primary. Often they then return to the middle. But when Mastriano won his primary in May, he made it clear that very night that he would do no such thing. His acceptance speech was a mixture of culture war rhetoric and talking points that could have been taken from a Tucker Carlson monologue. Not only was he going to govern as a far-right conservative, he assured all observers, but it became clear that he was going to continue to portray himself as one.

It was also what Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) had planned to do. In 2015, as he tried to stand out in a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates, Cruz insisted that the path to winning the presidency in 2016 was to energize conservative voters who had felt ignored or taken for granted by the nominations of John McCain and Mitt Romney. . Get those conservatives excited about a candidate, he figured, and you boost your vote tally even if more moderate Republicans stick to the party line.

He was largely right. It was just not him that voters found exciting.

From the time he announced his candidacy that same year, Donald Trump has run a campaign almost entirely focused on appealing to and activating right-wing voters. In 2016, that was enough to overtake Hillary Clinton in three decisive states and make it to the White House.

But that’s not really what Mastriano does. This week, the Philadelphia Inquirer documented the extent to which Mastriano is not just focusing on the political right but how he is doing it to the exclusion of everyone else.

“As he travels the Commonwealth,” write journalists William Bender and Chris Brennan, “Mastriano has essentially isolated himself from the general public, traveling in a bubble of nervous security guards and assistants who aim not only to protect, but to ensure that he only comes into contact with true believers.

It also continues to insulate itself from mainstream media scrutiny. Even conservative media, like the Washington Examiner, report get the cold shoulder.

“[B]Because I hadn’t written anything nice about her,” Selena Zito of the Examiner said, the campaign told her, “I won’t be granted an interview until I write something that was. That’s not how journalism works.

Mastriano also won’t debate his opponent in a traditional format. On Friday, he offered to debate the Democratic nominee, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, at a time and place of his choosing — and with a right-wing activist (and former Trump administration official) Mercedes Schlapp as moderator.

The question then becomes: can it work? Can Mastriano float through the governor’s residence riding the right-wing media bubble?

Clearly, Trump’s 2016 effort offers an imperfect comparison. For one thing, he’s lost the metric Mastriano needs: the actual vote total. On the other hand, Trump has benefited from two things that Mastriano is unlikely to have at his disposal: an unpopular opponent and – related – moderate voters giving him the benefit of the doubt.

In July, a Fox News poll showed that Mastriano down 10 points against Democrat Josh Shapiro. Moderates preferred Shapiro by more than three times that margin. Shapiro led Mastriano among independents by more than 2 to 1. More than half of Pennsylvanians viewed Shapiro positively. Less than 40% said the same of Mastriano.

It’s a poll. But if Mastriano only speaks to loyalists and through supportive media, how does he change the opinion of swing voters? Currently, his campaign has no money in slot for television commercials. Can he win only bring right-wing Republicans to the polls?

Consider what Trump did in Pennsylvania two years ago. It was an election with a huge turnout, almost certainly more turnout than the state will see in November. Exit polls suggest that only about 3 out of 5 votes the Trump actors came from self-identified conservatives. More than a third came from moderates. Trump ran hard to appeal to his base, but he also spoke more broadly to state residents and steered moderates away from Biden. It was almost enough to win, but not quite.

Even if Mastriano brings in all those conservative Trump voters and votes for him, that’s about 2 million votes. That’s what Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner obtained in 2018 about to be beaten by 17 points. It was a much more pro-Democrat cycle than this one should be, but: still.

There is another challenge with Mastriano’s approach. With each passing day in which he focuses solely on his existing supporters, his opponents have an additional 24 hours to define him for voters. Even though Mastriano suddenly appeared on “The Today Show” on November 1 and aired hourly ads during the final week of voting, there were months of negative stories which are already cooked. He yields to his adversaries the possibility of defining his candidacy.

If Trump’s victory in 2016 taught me anything, it’s that it’s foolish to overlook any possible election outcome. But Mastriano significantly lags poll after poll and seems to rely on the idea that he can run Trump’s playbook — pour all your energy into the base — better than Trump has.