Shapiro and Pa. Dems played a dangerous game with GOP voters and won big. Here's how.

Bruce Siwy
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

The messaging was clear in the Republican gubernatorial primary: "If Doug Mastriano wins, it's a win for what Donald Trump stands for."

Ads this spring, both on television and via mailers, played up the connection between the two even before Trump had endorsed the Pennsylvania state senator for governor. Mastriano went on to win his crowded primary by a landslide.

Curiously, the Mastriano-Trump ads weren't financed by Mastriano's campaign, Republican groups or any conservative-leaning outfits: They came instead from presumptive gubernatorial opponent Josh Shapiro and the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

"I think it was a risky strategy that appears to have paid off," said Jennie Sweet-Cushman, an associate professor of political science at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

One of the mailers distributed to potential Pennsylvania voters during the 2022 primary by the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

PA Democrats gambled with far-right candidates in the primaries

The strategy of amplifying Republican candidates associated with Trump and his Make America Great Again brand of politics was not unique to Shapiro and Pennsylvania Democrats. It was a gamble that, in this case and most others, paid off for the Democrats.

According to the USA TODAY, left-leaning political action committees and groups such as the Democratic Governors Association spent millions manipulating Republican primaries this year to boost far-right candidates.

In congressional races, that meant ads designed to influence a Michigan House race, and both House and Senate races in New Hampshire. This helped pro-MAGA candidates win their Republican primaries before being defeated by Democrats in the general election.

Similar scenarios played out in gubernatorial races across the country.

In Illinois alone, the Democratic Governors Association paid approximately $35 million to influence the GOP primary. The association also spent more than $1 million influencing the Republican gubernatorial primary in Maryland.

As in the congressional races, the strategy resulted in general election wins for the Democratic nominees.

In Pennsylvania, Shapiro spent approximately $840,000 in the Republican primary to call Mastriano "one of Donald Trump's strongest supporters." This $840,000 ad buy from the Shapiro campaign in the spring would constitute close to 20% of Mastriano's overall spending the entire yearlong campaign.

Additionally, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party produced a series of mailers with similar messaging.

Already the Republican state senator led the field in most polling. A survey conducted weeks before the vote this spring suggested a 14-point lead for Mastriano.

Republican voters eventually made him the party's nominee with a whopping 24-point win.

The Pennsylvania Democratic Party paid for this and other mailers tying Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano to Donald Trump during the primary this year.

'Pied piper' strategy could be dangerous

Nabilah Islam, Democratic state senator-elect in Georgia's Senate District 7, said she believes interfering in Republican primaries can be dangerous. She likened them to the "pied piper" strategy employed by presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee in 2016.

"I don't think Democrats should get involved in increasing the name ID of the opposition party," Islam said.

"There's no need to play with fire when you don't have to. It has backfired."

Communications between the Clinton's campaign and DNC, revealed to the public by WikiLeaks, suggested that the two coordinated to lift Trump and other far-right candidates in 2016 because they could be easier to defeat in the general election. "We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to (take) them seriously," one memo read.

"It gave us Donald Trump," Islam said, adding that she feels Democrats are the "party of the people" and should campaign on their own merits alone. "We should not get comfortable with this strategy."

The Shapiro team did not say whether their primary messaging was intended to boost Mastriano's odds of emerging from the Republican field.

“For weeks, both public and private polling indicated that Doug Mastriano was poised to win the Republican primary — and our campaign was prepared to start making sure Pennsylvanians knew his real record early," Manuel Bonder, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania's governor-elect, said in an email response. "Mastriano’s entire campaign was focused on banning abortion with no exceptions, restricting the right to vote, and overturning the 2020 election just to appease Donald Trump — and we didn’t allow him to paper over those facts, even for a second.”

Requests for comment from the Pennsylvania Democratic Party were not returned by deadline.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro meets a voter after speaking in Stroudsburg, Pa., on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.

Blueprint for political success in 2024?

At least for this election cycle, there's no arguing with the results.

Shapiro, who's stated he intends to continue working as the commonwealth's attorney general until assuming his new role, has received more votes than anyone in Pennsylvania the last three times he was on the ballot and broke a record for the number of votes garnered by a gubernatorial nominee here. His efforts to use Mastriano as a foil character in the general election was replicated by candidates up and down the ballot, contributing to a Democratic win in the U.S. Senate race and a majority in the state House of Representatives.

"It looks like the strategy that works is the one that Shapiro employed," Sweet-Cushman said.

"I think it played out in the numbers. Obviously we're all going to pivot now to looking at the 2024 presidential race."

"A vote for Doug Mastriano is vote for Donald Trump" was the message the Pennsylvania Democratic Party passed to GOP voters during the 2022 primary.

To Douglas Wilson, a Democratic strategist in North Carolina who worked as a senior adviser to the Biden-Harris coordinating campaign, there's an inherent contradiction to the pied piper strategy.

Messaging that played up candidates' connections to Trump this spring, Wilson said, almost certainly helped those candidates win their Republican primaries. This meant Shapiro's characterization of the race in Pennsylvania — "the stakes have never been higher" because "democracy ... is on the ballot" with Mastriano being "the most dangerous and extreme candidate in the country" — was inconsistent with advertising that likely helped Mastriano advance to the general election.

Wilson said he believes Democrats should focus on their own message moving forward, especially with Trump formally declaring another White House bid.

"It's kind of a Catch-22," Wilson said. "As Democrats we preach how democracy is under threat, but at the same time we are indirectly supporting candidates who are a threat democracy just so we can be victorious electorally in the general election."

"We have to be careful."

Islam agreed.

"It's a slippery slope there," she said. "I don't think its something we should get in the habit of doing."

Not that this cynical strategy won't be tempting, based on recent electoral outcomes in Pennsylvania and beyond.

"Ultimately the goal of a political party is to win elections," Sweet-Cushman said.

Bruce Siwy is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Pennsylvania state capital bureau. He can be reached at bsiwy@gannett.com or on Twitter at @BruceSiwy.