Doug Mastriano dropped hints on his political future. Can he really win a statewide race?

Bruce Siwy
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

State Sen. Doug Mastriano wasn't shy to point out that he visited Pennsylvanians impacted by the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment before Gov. Josh Shapiro did.

As chair of the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, Mastriano hosted a public hearing in Monaca, Beaver County, within weeks of the accident to hear from residents, question Pennsylvania leaders and admonish Norfolk Southern leadership for declining to attend. He's since been routinely tweeting videos of residents' outraged statements from the hearing.

It takes little imagination to envision those residents' anguished faces in political commercials — should the ambitious conservative raise enough funds to do any advertising in his next bid for office.

During a recent interview with Politico, Mastriano (R-Adams/Franklin) acknowledged that he's considering a run next year for the seat held by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). Keen political observers, meanwhile, are challenged to foresee an outcome for Mastriano much better than his 14-point drubbing in last year's gubernatorial race.

"I think if Doug Mastriano were the nominee, the race comes off the table for Senate Republicans," said Jessica Taylor, senate and governors editor for The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan source of national political analysis.

Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano speaks to supporters during an election night campaign event at the Penn Harris Hotel in Camp Hill, Pa., Nov. 8, 2022.

Who is running for U.S. Senate?

Mastriano is one of two prominent Republicans linked to this race. The other is Dave McCormick, who lost his primary bid to Dr. Mehmet Oz by just 950 votes in an attempt to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey. Democrat and former Lt. Gov. John Fetterman ultimately won that race by 5 points.

The Associated Press has reported that McCormick recently attended an event for the National Republican Senatorial Committee in Florida and that the Senate Leadership Fund, a Super PAC affiliated with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, has privately pledged financial support for McCormick.

As for the incumbent, while Casey hasn't formally announced whether he'll seek re-election, several political insiders expect him to seek another term, despite a recent surgery for prostate cancer.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey talks about holding Norfolk Southern accountable for the costs that the residents of Pennsylvania have incurred after the East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment.

The three-term senator most recently defeated Lou Barletta of the GOP by 13 points in 2018. Political science scholar Berwood Yost said Casey, like Shapiro, would be a challenge for any Republican.

"Pennsylvania is a difficult state to win," said Yost, director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll in Lancaster. "A loss doesn't preclude you from learning and trying again. The thing is, you've got to be willing to learn and adapt. (Mastriano) faces another formidable candidate should he run."

More:After midterm losses, Pa. Republicans warm up to 'ballot harvesting,' mail-in voting

Who would the Pa. GOP endorse?

The Republican Party of Pennsylvania isn't likely to weigh in until next year.

Vonne Andring, a senior adviser for the state GOP, said elected committee members from across the commonwealth are asked in February each year to vote on whether to endorse candidates for statewide office. If affirmative, they'll have a decision to make about the Senate race.

The state GOP didn't formally endorse anyone in the 2022 gubernatorial primary, and Mastriano shrugged off an 11th-hour attempt by party leadership to coalesce around Barletta, winning the race by 24 points.

Can Doug Mastriano win a U.S. Senate primary?

A Public Policy Polling survey released March 13 suggests that Mastriano remains popular with many of the Pennsylvania Republicans who supported his gubernatorial run.

In a three-way hypothetical primary including McCormick and Kathy Barnette, who also ran for U.S. Senate in 2022, Mastriano holds an 18-point lead among potential GOP voters in the commonwealth. This same poll showed Donald Trump with a similar lead over a prospective presidential field including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence. Public Policy Polling — founded by Dean Debnam, known for his affiliation with the Democratic Party — boasts a solid A-minus rating from FiveThirtyEight, a nationally renowned polling aggregate website.

If Mastriano runs, Taylor said, she expects the state and national GOP to come out aggressively against him since he and many other far-right figures lost in the 2022 general election during the somewhat disappointing midterms for Republicans.

"They're really trying to stop candidates like Doug Mastriano. This could be a very early test of whether they're able to do that," Taylor said. "I think in a pre-Trump era, he would be persona non grata. But I think now we're seeing some of these MAGA candidates kept alive by true believers."

Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, Dave McCormick greets supporters as he arrives for his returns watch party in the Pennsylvania primary election, Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Pittsburgh.

Can Doug Mastriano win a U.S. Senate seat?

Yost noted that Pennsylvania voters have occasionally given candidates a second, third or even fourth chance. His example, ironically, was Casey's father, who ran three unsuccessful gubernatorial campaigns before he was elected governor in 1986.

"I think in the modern era, he's probably the one who ran for office frequently and finally succeeded," Yost said of Bob Casey Sr.

For Mastriano to win, he added, he'd have to change his campaign strategy and moderate his extreme views. Yost isn't sure Mastriano would be willing to do either.

"He, frankly, didn't make much of an effort to reach beyond his primary base. His favorable ratings got worse and worse as the campaign went on because he allowed his opponent to define him as extreme," Yost said. "Clearly if he runs the same campaign as he ran before it seems unlikely that he'd be able to win."

No comment, again

In an "After Action Review" piece for The Epoch Times, Mastriano identified some things that went wrong for him in the 2022 campaign.

Mastriano cast much of the blame on the GOP establishment. To win more elections, he wrote, Republicans need to:

  • End the practice of pre-primary endorsements.
  • Unite behind the GOP primary winner.
  • Embrace mail-in voting, after years of railing against it.
  • Give funds directly to candidates instead of large PACs.

Stacy Rosenberg — an associate teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University specializing in disinformation, political communication and crisis communication — remains skeptical of Mastriano's viability in any statewide general election.

"What would be concerning for Doug Mastriano is that he doesn't seem to have party support," she said. "It's difficult to win without those resources and endorsements."

Mastriano's 2022 campaign showed, Rosenberg added, a weakness in connecting with independents and other voters outside of his conservative Christian base.

"One of the reasons is he traditionally has not engaged with the political press," Rosenberg said. "He could be shifting in that regard, recognizing that he needs to provide access to journalists to cover his campaign."

A media contact for Mastriano's state Senate office did not respond to multiple inquiries for this article.

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.