PHILADELPHIA — The election isn’t until Tuesday, but the blame game is already well underway.
With far-right state Sen. Doug Mastriano on the verge of capturing the Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nomination, Republicans are lashing out, furious that he could cost them a shot at a competitive race in the perennial swing state.
Last-ditch efforts to stop Mastriano seemed doomed from the start. But the final blow likely came on Saturday, when former President Donald Trump threw his support behind Mastriano, who has been one of the chief boosters of conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and was also at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
Even before Election Day, some Republicans in the state are pointing fingers over Mastriano’s expected win, specifically singling out state party Chair Lawrence Tabas. They argue he should have encouraged the party to endorse a gubernatorial candidate, muscled out low-polling contenders, or pushed the GOP to unite behind an alternative to Mastriano.
“At this point, Lawrence needs to own it. He’s the one in charge, so it’s up to him to figure this out,” said Jackie Kulback, the chair of the Cambria County Republican Party. “Honestly, as a state party we need to reevaluate our entire organization. We need to look at reorganization.”
Kulback’s county party backed both former Rep. Lou Barletta and businessman Dave White.
If Mastriano captures the nomination, “the PA GOP should be held accountable for this cataclysmic disaster, to put it mildly,” concurred Val Biancaniello, a Pennsylvania-based Republican organizer and former Trump delegate who supports White.
She added that Tabas should resign, and that calls for him to do so are “among insiders, very widespread.”
Tabas’ allies were quick to defend him. “He should not resign. I support him,” said Rob Gleason, himself a former state party chair.
Vonne Andring, a senior adviser for the Republican Party, responded to a request for comment sent to Tabas by saying that “the Republican State Committee voted overwhelmingly not to endorse — to give the candidates and their consultants every opportunity to make their best case to the voters.”
Some Republicans fear the already bubbling complaints could erupt into a full-blown intraparty battle should Mastriano lock down the nomination on Tuesday.
“You have the old Harry Truman quote: ‘The buck stops here,’’ said one top Republican official in the state, who was granted anonymity to discuss intraparty dynamics. “When you’re at the top and what folks may view as a mess, it stops with you.”
Some prominent Pennsylvania Republican individuals and donors are even considering publicly supporting Josh Shapiro, the presumptive Democratic gubernatorial nominee, if Mastriano wins the primary, several party sources told POLITICO.
Mastriano has been steadily rising in the polls in recent weeks, jumping to the front of a field that includes Barletta — who Trump endorsed for Senate in 2018 — and former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain and White.
A new independent survey from Susquehanna Polling and Research, a Pennsylvania-based Republican shop, found as much. The poll found Mastriano at 29 percent, with 18 percent for McSwain and 15 percent for Barletta. The survey was in the field from Thursday through Sunday.
Whoever wins Tuesday’s primary will face Shapiro, the state attorney general who faced no competition en route to his party’s nomination and has been stockpiling cash for the general election.
Mastriano, whose campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story, has already started to defend the state party’s handling of the primary.
“This is the first time in 44 years that the state party has not endorsed a candidate for governor,” he said in an interview with Newsmax on Monday morning. “And so truly, we have an opportunity in Pennsylvania where the people can make a vote without influence from the state party apparatus. So hats off to the party leadership for actually taking that bold stand.”
Last week, prominent Republicans in the state began to scramble to head off Mastriano by trying to push candidates out of the race in an effort to consolidate support around a single, anti-Mastriano choice. Shapiro’s campaign also sought to boost Mastriano’s prospects of winning by running TV ads that threw red meat to a MAGA base. Republicans who oppose Mastriano were alarmed, viewing it as further evidence underscoring that the state senator was the easiest candidate to beat in the general election.
While some lower-polling candidates agreed on the plan to consolidate the GOP field — state Senate President Jake Corman and former Rep. Melissa Hart both dropped out to endorse Barletta — none of the higher polling candidates trailing Mastriano budged, despite significant pressure to do so.
That was especially true for McSwain, whose campaign has repeatedly reaffirmed he would remain in the race. Commonwealth Partners, an outside group that has flooded the airwaves with pro-McSwain advertising, said on Sunday that McSwain should drop out and that the organization was switching its endorsement to Barletta. The New York Times also reported that Jeffrey Yass, a prominent Republican megadonor, asked McSwain directly to consider dropping out last week.
But many Republicans believed that the effort came far too late, even if some of the leading non-Mastriano candidates went along with it. Those would-be endorsements don’t “counter a Donald Trump endorsement,” groused a senior aide to one of the candidates, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “Anyone that thinks otherwise is delusional.”
Several Republicans also pointed out that it was far too late to get candidates’ names removed from the ballot. “Frankly, I think that — strategically — the time for the party leaders to try to force consensus is certainly not May 11-16,” an aide to a second candidate said.
It’s unclear if the field will come back around to embrace Mastriano, in the event he wins on Tuesday. Aides to several of the remaining candidates said they weren’t aware of any conversations about a unity rally, which frequently happens after contentious primaries.
Mastriano’s looming victory also puts national Republicans’ investment in the state into serious question. In an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts refused to commit to devoting Republican Governors Association resources to Pennsylvania should Mastriano emerge as the nominee.
“That candidate, whoever gets elected in Pennsylvania, will have to show that they’re going to make it a good race,” he said on the show. “And if it’s a good race, the Republican Governors Association will be there to support our Republican nominee.”
One Republican aide familiar with the committee’s plans, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the decision-making process, said that while the RGA wouldn’t rule out spending in the state, “Mastriano gives us less reason to support the Republican in the state than other candidates would” because he would be a weak general election candidate.
That Republican was also skeptical that the late efforts to stop Mastriano have any chance of success. “The only way it could really happen is that [the rest of the field] all dropped out yesterday and then this morning there’s a $10 million ad buy,” the aide joked.
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