GREENCASTLE, Pa. — On a cloudy, cold day this past weekend, Jamie Crowe, a conservative activist from northeastern Pennsylvania, put on a Doug Mastriano gemstone pin and got in her car for a 100-mile drive to see the state’s most MAGA Republican.
An advocate for freeing the prisoners who were charged in the Jan. 6 riot, Crowe participates in a nightly vigil for them. But on Saturday, she put aside that work to cheer on Mastriano, the Republican lawmaker who just months ago lost the governor’s race by 15 percentage points. She hopes that by showing up and supporting him at his rally, he will be convinced to make another run for office in 2024, this time for the Senate. “Doug Mastriano’s a true patriot,” she said. “He’s for the American people. He’s for the state of Pennsylvania.”
The fact that Mastriano was defeated in a landslide doesn’t weigh on Crowe the way it does for Republican leaders who are desperate to flip the Senate next fall. That’s because she doesn’t believe it happened.
“Doug Mastriano won that election. It was a false election, and I think the people know that it was a false election,” she said as she walked through the parking lot in search of her car following the rally’s conclusion, the harsh mid-March wind hitting her face. “People in Pennsylvania know.”
In a midterm cycle that was disappointing for the GOP across the country, Pennsylvania Republicans were among the biggest losers. Along with Mastriano’s flogging, GOP candidates fell short in the Senate contest and the majority of state House races.
Establishment Republicans have found a silver lining amid the grimness: Perhaps there will be a reckoning. Even diehard supporters of former President Donald Trump, they’ve reasoned, are finally sick of losing.
The Senate GOP’s campaign arm has a new chair, Montana Sen. Steve Daines, who has vowed to wade into primaries in order to nominate candidates who can win general elections. And in Pennsylvania, he is courting Dave McCormick, a former hedge fund CEO who narrowly lost the Senate primary in 2022, to run against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. McCormick is taking steps to prepare for a possible campaign, including releasing a book Tuesday, launching a new political action committee and attending GOP events in the state recently. In a sign that he’s not joking around about intervening, Daines last week attacked Mastriano as unelectable after news came out that he was considering a Senate run.
But while the moves have given hope to party officials and donors, the testimony of voters like Crowe show just how far the GOP still must go. In this corner of the political world in Pennsylvania, it’s the establishment — not the MAGAverse — that needs course-correction.
“The Senate reelection campaign in D.C. is like, ‘We don’t want Mastriano to run.’ Well, you don’t have a say in that there, fella,” Mastriano told the crowd at his rally over the weekend. “They can’t win any state races without the Walk as Free People movement, right? They can’t win without us. So they better be ginger.”
Mastriano’s rally was part-revival, part-reunion for his fans. Held in a small town in south-central Pennsylvania, it was also a demonstration of what McCormick and his mainstream allies in the party could be up against if he enters the Senate race.
A few hundred people attended the event, where Mastriano promoted a slate of Republicans running for local office this year. In addition to the candidates, speakers included Rep. John Joyce (R-Pa.), Trump lawyer Christina Bobb and conservative media personality Wendy Bell. The main message was that MAGA-ism isn’t dead. The language spoken, however, was conspiracy theories.
- On the reliability of the 2020 election: “Where are these numbers coming from? Nothing matched. It didn’t work,” said Bobb.
- On Sen. John Fetterman’s recovery from clinical depression at an in-patient facility: “Do we even know if Fetterman is even alive right now?” asked Lori Phillips, a volunteer for Mastriano who attended the rally.
- On Covid-19: “China should be held for war crimes, and maybe if our government — if [Anthony] Fauci and all those guys — were involved in it just as much, maybe they should be held for war crimes,” said retiree Larry Haugh, another rally-goer.
In an interview Monday, McCormick said Mastriano would not factor into his decision about whether to run again for the Senate.“It’s a personal choice,” he said. “It will be based on whether I believe I can win and really contribute as a senator from Pennsylvania. And how other people think about it and what they do is not going to be a primary consideration.”
As he weighs the viability of a Senate run, McCormick also said the GOP must work to increase voter registration and encourage Republicans to vote by mail. In what appeared to be a subtle knock on Mastriano, he added, “I think it’s important we pick candidates who can win the primary and the general, whether it’s for the Senate or for governor or for other races around the country.”
Democrats, who last year elevated Trump-aligned candidates in several GOP primaries in hopes of facing the least formidable opponents possible, are already wading into the nascent Pennsylvania contest. The day before McCormick’s book, “Superpower in Peril: A Battle Plan to Renew America,” was released, the Senate Democrats’ campaign arm put out a document highlighting past attacks against McCormick from fellow Republicans. The same day, a liberal polling firm released a survey showing Mastriano leading McCormick in a hypothetical primary.
In recent weeks, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee officials have had conversations with former campaign consultants for now-Gov. Josh Shapiro, who beat Mastriano last fall. According to a person familiar with the talks, they centered on Mastriano’s strengths in a GOP primary.
At Mastriano’s rally, a number of attendants were skeptical of McCormick.
“He was a RINO in my opinion,” said nurse Joy Whitesel. “He just seemed too rehearsed for me.”
“I hadn’t even heard of him until he announced he was running for office,” said health care worker Rebecca Evans.
But it wasn’t just McCormick who elicited apprehension, but also the political remedies he and other traditional Republicans were pushing in the wake of the 2022 letdown. Though multiple Republican leaders, including Mastriano, have argued that the party needs to embrace mail-in voting, several of the rally-goers were reluctant about going in that direction.
“I don’t agree with mail-in voting because it’s so easy to become fraudulent,” said Whitesel, adding that she wants Mastriano to run for the Senate and isn’t concerned about his electability “because his loss was only by mail-in votes — he won the in-person votes — and he got zero support from the RINOs.”
For McCormick, this all raises tricky questions: mainly, is there an actual path forward to winning his party’s nod, especially with Trump running for the presidency. During last year’s election, McCormick unsuccessfully sought the former president’s endorsement and hired several of his ex-aides. For the time being, he seems to be taking a different tack. Though McCormick applauded Trump’s approach to China and the economy in his book, he also recounted a private conversation in which Trump told him, “You know you can’t win unless you say the election was stolen.”
McCormick said he “made it clear to him that I couldn’t do that. Three days later, Trump endorsed Mehmet Oz” for the Senate.
Asked whether he supports Trump in the presidential primary, McCormick said there are “great people” who are going to run, but that he has not made a decision yet to back any candidate.
“I want to see how the primary goes,” he said. “I also am a strong proponent of hopefully a vision for the future that’s positive — more looking forward than backwards.”
Whether looking forward — not backward — is what GOP primary voters want is less clear.
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