(CNN)The message was blunt to Pennsylvania Republicans in the closing days before the May 17 primary: Don’t pick someone who can’t win.
As he announced he was dropping out of the GOP gubernatorial race and throwing his support behind former US Rep. Lou Barletta, state Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman called the open governor seat “an opportunity.”
“The only way we will not be successful in the fall is if we nominate someone who can’t possibly win,” he said.
That comment was directed at the presumed front-runner for the Republican nomination, state Sen. Doug Mastriano. The clearest sign of Mastriano’s presumed dominance in the primary came Saturday when he earned a last-minute endorsement from former President Donald Trump. Mastriano has been one of the leading peddlers in Pennsylvania of Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.
“He has revealed the Deceit, Corruption, and outright Theft of the 2020 Presidential Election, and will do something about it,” Trump said in a statement Saturday, adding that Mastriano “is a fighter like few others, and has been with me right from the beginning, and now I have an obligation to be with him.”
But Corman’s remarks showcased what’s been an open worry among Republicans — that Mastriano could be too extreme to win a general election in the battleground state.
Swing voters in the heavily populated suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have proved decisive in previous elections — a voting bloc that state Senate GOP floor leader Kim Ward said Republicans need to win — and they may not be won over by Mastriano.
“Senator Mastriano has appeal to base Republicans, but I fear the Democrats will destroy him with swing voters,” Ward wrote in a Facebook post this week announcing she was supporting former Delaware County Council member Dan White for governor. “The goal isn’t to win the primary. Winning the primary and losing the general because the candidate is unable to get the votes in the middle isn’t a win. We need a candidate who can win in November.”
Democrats, eager to pounce on Mastriano’s surging status within the crowded Republican field, rolled out a statewide political ad in the closing days of the campaign.
“This is Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano,” the ad begins. It explains that Mastriano wants to outlaw abortions and end vote by mail and is a strong Trump supporter — all credentials Mastriano wants his base to know, but ones that Democrats think will end up hurting him should he be the GOP contender in November.
The ad is paid for by the campaign of Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general who is running unopposed to be the Democratic nominee for governor.
“I think it’s pretty clear he’s going to be their nominee,” Shapiro told CNN.
It’s a strategy that campaigns across the country have used before — boost the candidate that the opposing side believes would be the weakest challenger in the general election.
Still, in the final days before the Pennsylvania primary, Mastriano stood before supporters in Western Pennsylvania and proudly asserted that he was the “most conservative candidate” running for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Mastriano’s campaign has declined repeated requests for an interview or access to campaign events.
Mastriano, a retired US Army colonel who has served in the state Senate since 2019, shot to national prominence in 2020, baselessly raising doubts about Pennsylvania’s presidential election results. Despite the vote count showing Trump lost the state by more than 80,000 votes and no evidence presented of widespread voter fraud, Mastriano attempted, but failed, to launch an Arizona-style partisan audit of the 2020 ballots.
Mastriano was also pictured outside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, the day of the insurrection there. In a statement, he said he left before rioters stormed the Capitol.
Emphasizing voting and abortion rights
On the Democratic side, Shapiro managed to clear the field of any significant competition, with strong party support.
Like Mastriano, the two-term state attorney general also rose to national prominence in 2020, defending Pennsylvania’s presidential election result. Shapiro faced off with the Trump campaign and its allies dozens of times in court, winning nearly every single case brought against the state.
“The next governor here in Pennsylvania, the ultimate swing state, the epicenter of the battle to protect our democracy, is going to have a lot to say about the future of democracy,” Shapiro told CNN, noting that the governor would appoint the top elections official in the commonwealth.
In the closing arguments of his campaign, Shapiro is emphasizing not just voting, but also abortion rights. It’s an issue that Democrats believe that in the wake of the leaked US Supreme Court draft opinion will energize the very swing voters Republicans are worried about should Mastriano become their nominee — suburban women.
In Philadelphia earlier this month, Shapiro rallied with supporters of abortion access, casting Mastriano as “an extremist.”
“I’m running against a bunch of extremists on the other side that want to take away Pennsylvania’s fundamental freedoms, and I will stand up to that,” Shapiro told CNN in an interview.
He then narrowed in on Mastriano
“I’m someone who wants to protect a woman’s right to choose. He will ban abortion. I’m someone who wants to expand voting rights in Pennsylvania. He’s looking to restrict them,” Shapiro said. “We think it’s important that the people of Pennsylvania … know that there’s a clear contrast between he and I.”
That’s a contrast Mastriano proudly proclaimed at his rally in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.
“That’s somebody else’s body,” Mastriano said before a crowd waving signs with his name. “And that somebody, boy or girl, deserves every sort of right to life as anyone in this room here.”