'Campaign malpractice': How Doug Mastriano flamed out after a Trump-fueled surge
CAMP HILL — Though polls and early returns were grim, former "American Idol" contestant Danny Gokey regaled the Penn Harris Hotel with Stevie Wonder, Huey Lewis and an array of worship songs.
As numbers worsened the Fox News station — shown via projectors to both sides of the stage — was changed to Newsmax. Crowds thinned, and Gokey's voice grew hoarse and practically gave out.
With the Election Day entertainment and optimism exhausted, Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano at last took the stage at 11:15 p.m. to offer a non-concession and thank his remaining guests: The night, and his gubernatorial hopes, were over.
"We're going to wait patiently to see what the people of Pennsylvania said, and what the people of Pennsylvania say, we'll of course respect that," Mastriano said. "And so we're going to stand together in faith until every vote is counted. And then we look forward to celebrating with you."
It was a quiet and unceremonious end to a campaign that barely existed. Outside of social media, deeply conservative outlets, and the rallies with former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Mastriano was invisible other than the attack ads against him. He had insufficient cash for many of his own advertisements and he ignored the mainstream media almost entirely, including a request for comment for this article.
On the one potentially winning issue — inflation and the economy, at the top of voters' minds — his Democratic opponent Josh Shapiro was talking to swing voters like a Republican while Mastriano talked to Christian nationalists on Gab.
Strategically, Mastriano never leveled out his rightward tilt. Even Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Trump-backedRepublican nominee for U.S. Senate who ultimately fell short to Democrat John Fetterman, was able to make his race competitive by taking a centrist approach.
"Shapiro led in every single poll," said G. Terry Madonna, senior fellow for political affairs at Millersville University. "And Mastriano did nothing to try to expand the base."
Outspent and off message
This story can be told, in part, with simple math and human nature.
Shapiro's campaign raised $51 million this year and spent nearly $60 million. He raised nearly $3 million during his worst reporting cycle, which was close to the amount Mastriano raised during his best reporting cycle.
Though his hauls increased substantially toward the end of the campaign, Mastriano was still outspent nine times over.
That spells trouble for any candidate, let alone one with the number of controversies saddled to Mastriano.
He was hit with attack ads for paying Gab, a social media site whose founder has been tied to antisemitism, to promote his candidacy. A Pennsylvanian could hardly expect to sit through a rerun of "The Dr. Oz Show" without expecting Mastriano's infamous "My body, my choice is nonsense" line becoming an earworm by the end of each commercial break in other attack ads against him.
The New York Times reported that exit polling by TV stations and Edison Research revealed that abortion may have surpassed the economy as the chief top-of-mind issue for Pennsylvania voters. The Shapiro team's relentless messaging on the topic had even Mastriano hedging.
By the eve of Election Day, the arch-conservative's message on social media was assuring voters he wouldn't have the lone authority to make abortion law.
"Spread the Truth!" he tweeted. "No Governor or U.S. Senator can dictate the law when it comes to abortion. Don't let Democrat lies cheat you out of a safer, less woke, more prosperous Pennsylvania."
The statement was technically true, but missing relevant context.
Just last year Mastriano sponsored a bill to require physicians to check for a heartbeat and deny abortions if one is detected. And the commonwealth's conservative-leaning Legislature had already made other attempts to restrict abortion in recent years, each vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
Fairly or unfairly, Shapiro's campaign boxed Mastriano in as the guy who'd sign your daughter's death warrant if she was raped and faced a life-threatening pregnancy.
The bulk of the voters who determine election outcomes in swing states probably aren't posting to Gab or following Jack Posobiec — the conservative activist who pushed the false "Pizzagate" theory — on Twitter. They're grandparents picking up the Sunday paper, moms catching a few minutes of daytime TV in the waiting room of the pediatrician, undergrads streaming YouTube videos.
They're precisely the people Shapiro was reaching through ads while Mastriano palled around with self-proclaimed prophets such as Julie Green who promoted QAnon conspiracy theories.
'Far too conservative for Pennsylvania'
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mastriano caught the attention of many conservatives for his public denunciations of the Wolf administration's business shutdowns and school closures. This angst likely helped carry him through a crowded primary field to a commanding win.
That victory, however, came with its own cost.
Party leadership liked Lou Barletta for the job. Several rivals dropped out in the 11th hour in an attempt to propel Barletta and stop Mastriano, who'd already rankled some fellow GOP lawmakers with his antics in calling for an audit of the 2020 election. Mastriano feuded publicly with Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and was barred from private meetings within his own party.
His rift with GOP elders and his connection to the Jan. 6, 2021, protests resulted in fewer alliances and more high-level Republican defections.
Shapiro made headlines in July when he was endorsed by nine prominent members of the GOP, including a retired state supreme court justice and two congressmen. In August another set of eight fairly well-known Republicans, including a member of Trump's 2016 transition team, pledged for Shapiro as well.
"In the end what basically happened was Doug Mastriano was far too conservative in Pennsylvania," Madonna said. "The lesson here is too far right, too far left, and your candidacy is in trouble."
According to Matt Brouillette, treasurer of the Commonwealth Leaders Fund PAC, Mastriano never even asked his group for money.
"Not once did they seek us out. I think that showed in how he ran his campaign," Brouillette said, noting that his organization is the largest PAC in Pennsylvania.
He pointed out that his group didn't back Mastriano during the primary, and wondered if Mastriano had harbored a grudge.
"I think he wrote off anyone who was not 100% with him in the primary. That's my story and the story I heard from everyone else," Brouillette said.
Challenging Josh Shapiro, only to find agreement
With little money, few allies and zero interest in talking to the press beyond explicitly conservative outlets, Mastriano tried challenging Shapiro on policy. But the Democrat and his team took the oxygen out of almost any populist position Mastriano took by simply agreeing.
When Mastriano wrote a bill to subject state universities such as Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh to the commonwealth's Right-to-Know open record law in the interest of transparency, Shapiro shrugged. He indicated that he'd sign that bill.
When Mastriano's platform called for more choice in K-12 schooling, Shapiro said OK. He spoke of supporting the concept of using taxpayer funds toward private schooling for children in low-performing districts.
And when Mastriano returned to COVID, his old go-to, claiming coronavirus vaccines shouldn't be mandated for kids, Shapiro also agreed. A Shapiro administration, according to his team, will make the vaccines widely available and encourage their use — but not require them.
Even on economic topics, Shapiro spoke largely of cutting taxes and slashing bureaucracy, talking points more typical of the GOP.
Why Mastriano is different from other MAGA candidates
There are temptations to make grand pronouncements at the end of every election, and in this one perhaps more so than most. Is democracy on the ballot and did it win? Have voters acknowledged abortion as a fundamental American right? Are we witnessing the end of the Trump era of the Republican Party?
Though Mastriano and other Trump devotees were defeated convincingly, others in the commonwealth and across the country have won. Several Washington, D.C. lawmakers from Pennsylvania, albeit harbored by safely red congressional districts, did just fine. And MAGA candidate Kari Lake is within a percentage point of her Democratic opponent in the Arizona gubernatorial race with more than 30% of the vote still to count.
But Stacy Rosenberg — an associate teaching professor at Carnegie Melon University specializing in disinformation, political communication and crisis communication — said there are critical distinctions between Lake and Mastriano.
Lake, she said, has mass media experience as a former television anchor. She's challenged reporters and narratives on air, noting that Democrats have denied election results in the past as well.
"She recognized the power that she could have by being front and center and getting her talking points out," Rosenberg said. "We did not see that from Mastriano at all."
"As much as President Trump made the media the enemy, he still talked to them."
Pat Stringent, an 81-year-old resident of Johnstown, perhaps most practically defined Mastriano's problem best when interviewed in September. She's a former Democrat who registered Republican during the Trump years, and she'd planned to split her ticket for Oz in the Senate and for Shapiro as governor.
"I don't think I've heard anything bad about him," Stringent said of Shapiro.
'Malpractice' on a shoestring campaign
Whatever mud Mastriano was slinging at Shapiro, it certainly wasn't reaching Stringent's eyes. And that can say a lot about how effective a campaign is, especially that close to decision day.
Trailing 800,000 votes with virtually every ballot already counted, Mastriano has declined to concede even with victory statistically impossible.
To do so would be formal acknowledgement of what many already knew. This race, to the extent that it was a race, was decided long ago when Mastriano tried to win a "purple" state by running his shoestring campaign away from the center lane hogged by Shapiro into the weeds and, ultimately, a ditch.
"You can't walk away from the suburbs of Pennsylvania and expect to win a statewide election," Madonna said. "Mastriano could not literally expand his base, and if you can't do that, how do you win?"
Brouillette was harsher in his assessment.
"I honestly didn't think it would be this bad. I thought that he would understand that to win elections in Pennsylvania you have to appeal to all voters and not just your Republican base," he said. "Obviously he decided to go his own path and we've seen the results."
"I'd call it campaign malpractice," Brouillette added. "It's one that should never be replicated again."