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How the GOP's hope for a red wave in Pennsylvania crumbled

Mike Wereschagin
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)

As Pennsylvania Republicans sift through the wreckage of what should have been a banner election for them, one question rises above all others.

What went wrong?

History was on their side. The economy had primed voters to reject Democrats and hand power to Republicans. But instead of a red wave, it was a bloodbath for the state's GOP.

The scope of the losses is historic.

Pennsylvania will send two Democrats to the U.S. Senate for the first time since the mid-1940s. The Congressional delegation will be majority-Democrat for the first time since 2010. Republicans are on the cusp of losing their state House majority for the first time in more than a decade. And the GOP lost an open-seat governor's race by the largest margin in 70 years.

"It was an epic beat-down," Pennsylvania's retiring U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican, said in an interview.

The GOP's problems trickled down from the top, observers said. Normally, a party counts on its candidate for governor to lift up the races farther down ballot. But Doug Mastriano, a far-right state senator, lost to Attorney General Josh Shapiro by a whopping 14 percentage points, twice what some late polls had predicted.

"It is very, very challenging to overcome a complete meltdown at the top of the ticket, and that's what we had," Toomey said.

The result: "A complete and utter catastrophe for the Republican Party," said Joseph DiSarro, a member of the Republican Committee of Allegheny County and political scientist at Washington & Jefferson College.

From left (sitting), York County Office of Voter Registration and Elections Dep. Director Annie Mendoza, Chief Clerk Greg Monskie and Voting Technology Lead Casey Brady sort ballots from Jacobus Borough, while York County Office of Voter Registration and Elections Dep. Dir. Bryan Seaffer (standing) waits to hand-count them at York County Administration Center in York City, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Republicans found success in plenty of places across the country. They're still favored to win control of the U.S. House, although the Senate will remain in Democratic control. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis walloped his Democratic challenger, even winning Miami-Dade County, traditionally a Democratic bulwark.

But in Pennsylvania, unforced errors by party elites, former president Donald Trump's sway over its most passionate voters and a monumental decision by the U.S. Supreme Court hobbled the GOP at a pivotal moment in political history.

Three key days over the last year set the stage for Tuesday night's blockbuster results.

Feb. 5: When Republican state committee members gathered at the Wyndham Lancaster Resort and Convention Center for their winter meeting, they faced a momentous decision. Nine candidates were vying for the party's nomination, and the select group who had gathered on that day in early February would decide which of them would get the official endorsement of the party.

Their decision: no one.

"When you have nine candidates that's problematic. This was a failure by the Republican State Committee to endorse a candidate," DiSarro said.

"The state party can't and shouldn't dictate who the nominee is. That's for the voters to decide. But the state party can at least weigh in," Toomey said.

The party organization exists "to win races, to win elections," Toomey said. "That's the purpose. Not to enforce some kind of ideological litmus test, not to disqualify people because they're too conservative or not conservative enough. But to weigh in on electability. The state party didn't do that."

But Trump did.

Though he didn't endorse Mastriano until the last days of the primary, when he had a commanding lead, Trump had been boosting the once-obscure lawmaker ever since Mastriano used his office to amplify false conspiracy theories about Trump's 2020 election defeat.

Mastriano's position at the head of the movement to deny and overturn the 2020 election won him the loyalty of a solid bloc of hard-core Republicans. The state's biggest Republican fundraisers, meanwhile, split over two rival candidates, and the political establishment split over two others.

Without the state committee rallying around one alternative, the fractured vote allowed Mastriano to capture the nomination with less than 44% of the vote. His next-closest rival trailed him by more than 20 points.

But that commanding lead obscured a deeper, fundamental weakness: Most Republicans voted for someone else. Rather than try to broaden that support, Mastriano ran his general election campaign almost entirely inside the MAGA-movement bubble, refusing to answer questions from anyone but friendly, right-wing media hosts and failing to reach out to even moderate independents, let alone Democrats.

"The Mastriano campaign was textbook terrible," DiSarro said. "He's going around to meetings with people who agree with him. That doesn't work in politics. You make your bones the day you have to answer a challenge from someone. Your job is to try to convince that person to vote for you."

In Pennsylvania, it's simple math. Democrats outnumber Republicans by 550,000 voters, a six-point advantage.

"We can't win with just Republicans," DiSarro said.

Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano stands on stage with his wife Rebecca during an election night campaign event at the Penn Harris Hotel in Camp Hill, Pa., Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Outside the bubble of conservative media, Mastriano's poorly funded campaign barely broke through. It didn't run a television ad until October.

"You cannot have a top-of-the ticket race in a competitive state go uncontested, and that's what they did," said Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College.

"Josh Shapiro ran a campaign against nobody," Yost said. "He ends up winning moderates by 40 points and independents by almost 30."

That's on Trump, without whom Mastriano likely wouldn't have had enough support to rise from his rural Franklin County district to the top of his party's ticket, Yost said.

"There's no question in my mind that former President Trump cost us a lot of races that we could've won," Toomey said, ticking off Senate contests in New Hampshire, Arizona and Georgia where Trump's chosen candidates were far enough outside the mainstream that Democrats remained more competitive than history suggests they should've been.

April 9: Toomey doesn't put Mehmet Oz in that category — Oz lost to Lt. Gov. John Fetterman by 4 percentage points, 10 better than Mastriano — but others say the long-time television host and surgeon was a particularly bad fit for Pennsylvania.

And a particularly bad choice by Trump.

The former president's April 9 endorsement didn't pave the way for an easy primary for Oz, but analysts say he wouldn't have won without it.

His main opponent, former hedge fund CEO David McCormick, had experience at the highest levels of government and deeper connections to the state than Oz, who registered to vote in Pennsylvania less than two years ago, using the address of a home owned by his mother-in-law.

"McCormick grew up in rural Pennsylvania. He has rural roots and a more traditional Republican background," Yost said.

This combination of photos shows Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Oct. 8, 2022, in York, Pa., left, and Mehmet Oz, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Sept. 23, 2022, in Allentown, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Their primary campaign was brutal. Barrages of biting attack ads, plus a late surge by far-right candidate Kathy Barnette opened such deep divisions within the party that Oz would be booed at a rained-out rally that Trump held for him in Greensburg.

McCormick would concede to Oz only after weeks of legal battles over the razor-thin race. He won with just 31.2% of the vote. More than two of every three Republicans wanted someone else.

"He had the smallest share of the vote for a winning candidate in 100 years," Yost said.

Even without that bruising primary, the celebrity newcomer from New Jersey was always going to have a hard time in a state that's so parochial, its western and eastern halves fight over whose gas stations serve better food.

"Sheetz or WaWa, baby. Where do you come down," Yost said. "Who else does that?"

When voters went to cast their ballots Tuesday, only 43% of them believed Oz had lived in Pennsylvania long enough to effectively represent the state, according to exit polls. Most voters walked into their polling places with a negative view of Oz, according to polls conducted before the race ended.

"He just was not a good fit for Pennsylvania," Yost said.

Then, with mere days left in the race, Oz undermined his own final message to voters — that he could be a friendly, unifying voice in Washington — by sharing a stage with the most polarizing figure in American politics: Donald Trump.

"That was just incoherent. It made no sense," Yost said.

A seasoned politician might have navigated those perilous political waters more deftly, but this was Oz's first campaign.

"Oz didn't even run for City Council. He's a novice," DiSarro said.

July 8: Nowhere was that more apparent than on the issue that would drive most voters' decision: Abortion rights.

Oz was recorded before the primary equating abortion to murder, and during the general election, rather than taking a position on the issue, he stuck with what had once been the standard line for GOP politicians: that states should decide the issue for themselves.

In a post-Roe world, that just didn't fly — particularly in Pennsylvania.

On July 8, two weeks to the day after the Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to abortion, the Republican-controlled state House and Senate passed a state constitutional amendment declaring there is no right to an abortion in Pennsylvania.

In election years, legislative leaders generally try to protect their members from unpopular votes. Republican leaders in the House and Senate had done the opposite — and in House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff's case, it might have cost his party the control of the chamber.

"That's political suicide," DiSarro said.

Just a month after the amendment passed, voters in deep-red Kansas shocked much of the country by rejecting a nearly identical ballot measure to the one Pennsylvanians had passed. It was the first popular vote on the issue after the U.S. Supreme Court's Dobbs decision, and its margin — the amendment failed by almost 20 points — should have served as a giant, blinking warning light to Republicans, analysts said.

Democrats here hammered away at the issue, saying a vote for any Republican — be it for Senate, Congress, governor or state legislator — was a vote to end access to abortion in Pennsylvania.

They flipped more than a dozen Republican-held seats, taking the chamber from a 113-90 seat advantage for Republicans to a 101-100 seat lead for Democrats. Two undecided races in the Philadelphia suburbs will decide final control.

Benninghoff did not respond to an interview request from the Post-Gazette.

"I oppose abortion as a matter of faith, as a Catholic. But you have to look at the reality," DiSarro said.

Alex Bologa, of Conewago Township, after casting her vote during Election Day at Conewago Elementary School in Conewago Township, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022. Dawn J. Sagert/The York Dispatch

Abortion turned out to be the top issue driving voters in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, with more than one in three ranking it above every other factor, according to exit polling reported by ABC News.

Dig into those numbers, and the picture gets even worse for Republicans.

Mastriano's belief that abortion should be illegal, with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother, put him well outside the mainstream. A mere 8% of voters shared his position, exit polls showed.

Nearly 60% of Pennsylvania voters disagreed with the Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade, with 40% going so far as to say they were angry about it, according to exit polls. On the other side, just 7% said the decision excited them.

Dobbs had taken the normal midterm election dynamic — with minority-party voters fired up and supporters of the party in power feeling complacent — and flipped it on its head.

"What is the most significant force in American political history? It's liberty. No question. And you, as candidate, must never forget that. Any infringement on liberty, whether it's taking someone's gun or taking someone's right to end perhaps a very problematic pregnancy" will cause a backlash, DiSarro said.

Nov. 9 and beyond: As members of the GOP process how a golden opportunity in a key swing state turned calamitous, many are pointing the finger at their party's most popular figure.

While Trump contemplates whether to announce another run for the presidency as early as this week, an increasing number of Republicans around the country hold up Pennsylvania's election results as evidence that, for the GOP's own survival, it needs to move on from the man who's been at the party's center for more than half a decade.

Elections elsewhere around the country show the Republican Party's problem in Pennsylvania is "not ideological," Toomey said. "Ron DeSantis is as conservative as anybody, but he was competent and successful and he's not obsessed with what he sees as petty slights," as opposed to Trump, who responds harshly to any perceived criticism, even if it damages a Republican's electoral prospects.

"It's not only Florida. Look at how well [Gov.] Brian Kemp did in Georgia. Look at [Gov.] Chris Sununu's success in New Hampshire. Look at Iowa. [Ohio Gov.] Mike DeWine is winning by 25 points," Toomey said. "I think there's a very clear message. The message is that if the sole criteria or the primary criteria for nominating Republicans is allegiance to Donald Trump, then we're going to have big problems."