As Democrats raise money and work together to support prospective gubernatorial nominee Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the GOP remains at war with itself.
Competition is the point of a primary: letting voters choose the best standard-bearer for November. This year, however, Republicans suffer from an excess of choice. Nine candidates qualified for the primary ballot, and the latest poll from Emerson College shows state Sen. Doug Mastriano leading with just 16%.
The GOP primary field recently descended into chaos. On April 12, State Senate leader Jake Corman, considered a leading contender, was expected to end his campaign. But by that afternoon, Corman reversed his decision. He cited a statement from Donald Trump lambasting rival gubernatorial candidate, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, and a phone call from the former president, who “encouraged me to keep fighting.”
This is no way to choose a nominee.
The national political climate is the worst that Democrats have seen in years. Record-setting inflation, a tepid economy, and a directionless foreign policy combine to leave the Biden administration and anyone associated with it in electoral peril. In a swing state like Pennsylvania, this means that it is the Republicans’ race to lose. But they can still lose it.
How? By entering the general election cycle with a nominee who represents an extreme fringe of the party. Presumptive Democratic nominee Shapiro has plenty of faults – a career politician who always has his eye on the next job, he represents the milquetoast party establishment. But he rarely sets a foot wrong, and even where a conservative might disagree with him, it’s a disagreement within the range of mainstream opinion. Shapiro won in Montgomery County, a Philadelphia suburb, back when that was unusual for a Democrat, and he won statewide in 2016 and 2020.
Even in this favorable environment, Republicans must be sure not to make the mistake of nominating someone too extreme to win over the swing voters currently turning away from Biden and the Democrats.
Republican primary voters have clearly not made up their minds yet, as evidenced by nearly half of those surveyed – 48.8% – describing themselves as “undecided.” Even stepping back from Emerson’s poll to look at the RealClearPolitics polling average, no candidate reaches even 20%. Pennsylvania does not have a party convention or a ranked-choice voting system, only a one-time vote. If the Republican winner emerges with something like 25% of that vote, the GOP will go into the general election divided.
The nine Republican candidates currently on the ballot include many who could win and serve competently as governor. But conservative voters must remember William F. Buckley’s rule: support the most conservative candidate who can win. It achieves nothing to throw away the nomination for the sake of making a point.
Consider the 2010 midterms, when Republicans gave up on a winnable Senate seat in Delaware by nominating the politically unknown (but very conservative) Christine O’Donnell instead of the popular House incumbent, Mike Castle, who had won statewide elections a dozen times. Or 2012, a less favorable year in which Republicans from Missouri and Indiana nominated gaffe-prone candidates well outside the mainstream in their states.
Pennsylvania Republicans could easily find themselves doing the same in 2022. Mastriano, the current leader, has qualities that resonate with conservative voters, but his involvement with the January 6 riots and obsession with contesting the 2020 election would make the race a fight between a normal-sounding Democrat and a fringe Republican. Trump’s heavy hand in the primary could easily push other candidates to mirror Mastriano’s conspiratorial focus. That is a fight Republicans will lose.
A more positive example is the election of a sensible, conservative, Republican in Virginia in 2021. Glenn Youngkin made the election there about his state’s future, not 2020. He focused on issues that matter to ordinary voters – like education and pandemic measures – on which Democrats had taken Virginia far outside the mainstream.
In Pennsylvania, candidates like Lou Barletta or McSwain (who command 18% and 11% in the RCP average, respectively) could lead the GOP campaign in that direction, while pointing to their successes in government office. Education, rising crime, illegal immigration, inflation: these are issues on which a Republican can fight and win in Pennsylvania. They can’t do it by living in the past.
This article was republished with permission from RealClearPennsylvania.
Kyle Sammin is Broad + Liberty’s editor-at-large.