Mastriano and others vie for Trump voters as ex-president looms large

David Catanese
McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS)

It looked like Jake Corman had waved the white flag.

The state Senate president pro tempore from Bellefonte, who has struggled to gain traction in his campaign for Pennsylvania governor, initiated paperwork on Tuesday morning to withdraw from the race.

Hours later, a phone call from former President Donald Trump changed his mind.

“He encouraged me to keep fighting and that’s what I’m going to do,” Corman said of the conversation with the former president that convinced him to continue as a candidate.

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The development is illustrative of the sizable Trumpian shadow that is looming over the crowded Republican gubernatorial primary with less than five weeks before the vote is tallied in one of the most consequential races of the year.

Following Trump’s recent endorsement of Dr. Mehmet Oz in the U.S. Senate race, the GOP candidates for governor — and their collection of Trump-aligned advisers — are bracing for the former president to intervene in their own contest at any time, for good or ill.

Bill McSwain, the former U.S. attorney whose campaign is being directed by the former president’s 2020 election operations director in the state, is trying to withstand a MAGA-heated missile after Trump ruled him out of contention for failing to challenge his election loss in the commonwealth.

But both Corman and McSwain were fighting uphill battles even before those twin developments.

The two primary polling leaders, Lou Barletta, the former congressman, and Doug Mastriano, the state senator who was in Washington during the Jan. 6 riot, were always seen as the most likely contenders to receive Trump’s imprimatur.

“He’s like a mini version of Trump,” Greg Stewart, Centre County’s Democratic chairman, said of Mastriano. “He’ll motivate our voters but I also think he will motivate Trump voters.”

Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, arrives for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's budget address for the 2022-23 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

But Barletta has a longer relationship with Trump that goes back to 2016 when he was one of the first members of Congress to endorse him. The former Hazleton mayor, who saw Trump recently during a fundraising trip to Mar-a-Lago, went on to serve on Trump’s transition team and was considered for transportation secretary in his administration.

“I don’t think there needs to be any convincing. He’ll decide on his own if and when he wants to endorse in this race,” Barletta said in a phone interview on Thursday. “He’s paying attention to this race. It’s very important, especially in the 2024 presidential election, it’ll matter who the governor of Pennsylvania is. I know him well enough not to help him make his mind up.”

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Some candidates have learned that making too hard a push for Trump’s blessing can backfire. Mastriano’s early attempts at linking himself to the former president might have hurt him.

Last spring, after Mastriano said Trump urged him to run and promised to campaign for him, Trump’s spokesman at the time quickly denied that the conversation was an indication of direct support.

Still, Trump acolytes have swarmed the primary race, offering up their consulting services as advisers who have a fast line to Trump and his immense network of allies.

Barletta has enlisted former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien, former Trump battleground state director Nick Trainer and former Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtuagh as aides.

FILE - Bill McSwain takes part in a forum for Republican candidates for governor of Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pa., Friday, April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s former campaign manager and White House counselor, is on the payroll of Corman’s flagging effort.

Mastriano has held a fundraiser with Rudy Giuliani and won enthusiastic backing from Jenna Ellis, a former member of Trump’s legal team, and Liz Harrington, Trump’s current chief spokesperson.

Ellis, who has clashed with other Trump officials and has pitched Mastriano to Trump directly, noted her support isn’t based on a financial benefit.

“Unlike Conway or Stepien, I’m not paid for my endorsements or by Mastriano’s campaign. I support Doug because he’s the best and right candidate,” she said. “Mastriano is the MAGA candidate and I hope Trump will decide to endorse Mastriano.”

As the Oz endorsement demonstrated, It’s impossible to predict Trump’s whims. But some former advisers say the most likely outcome is that he remains neutral until the primary is settled on May 17.

Barletta’s aides convey that their internal polling has shown him slightly ahead since he got into the race last May, largely due to his foundational name recognition. In 2018, Barletta unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Bob Casey and was trounced by 13 points during a favorable midterm environment for Democrats.

FILE - Lou Barletta takes part in a forum for Republican candidates for governor of Pennsylvania at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Camp Hill, Pa., April 1, 2022. Barletta, says having a glut of natural gas in the ground without a pipeline is “like being in college and having a keg of beer without a tap.” (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

But Barletta believes that gaping loss still served him well, as he finished ahead of Casey in 54 of the commonwealth’s 67 counties, even as he was outspent by millions of dollars.

“Those factors show that I’m proven, I’m road-tested and I’m ready,” Barletta said, adding that the 2022 environment will benefit whoever the GOP nominee is. “The wind is at the Republicans’ back. I don’t know how anybody can vote for a Democrat right now here in Pennsylvania. Every time you go to the gas pump, it’s a reminder why a Republican should be the next governor.”

While polling has shown Mastriano to be Barletta’s strongest competitor, another pair of well-funded candidates is trying to climb into contention on the airwaves.

An outside conservative group has put millions behind McSwain, who is now seen as lastingly injured by Trump’s rebuke. Dave White, a Delaware County businessman, is plugging millions of his own money into his campaign.

But part of the problem for the best funded candidates is that the governor’s race is being swarmed by a flood of advertisements in the U.S. Senate race, which is featuring contested primaries in both parties.

“If they put up a few trees in the forest of Senate ads, it doesn’t have an impact,” said a Barletta adviser.

One poll released in the last week, conducted using automated technology rather than live calls to voters, showed McSwain leapfrogging Barletta into second place.

The problem: It was conducted before Trump issued his stinging denunciation of McSwain.

Mastriano finished first in this Eagle Consulting Group survey, but a full 44% indicated they were undecided, underlining the potential fluidity in the race during the last month before primary day.