CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. – Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, is perhaps best known as an election denier who was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. John Fetterman, the Democrat hoping to flip the state's Senate seat, has revolutionized how campaigns use social media. And Dr. Mehmet Oz was a TV celebrity long before he launched a GOP Senate campaign.
And then there's Josh Shapiro.
In one of the most politically competitive states in the U.S., the Democratic contender for governor is waging a notably drama-free campaign, betting that a relatively under the radar approach will resonate with voters exhausted by a deeply charged political environment. But Shapiro faces a test of whether his comparatively low-key style will energize Democrats to rally against Mastriano, who many in the party view as an existential threat.
The GOP candidate, who worked to keep Donald Trump in power and overturn President Joe Biden's victory in 2020, supports ending abortion rights and would be in position to appoint the secretary of state, who oversees elections in this state that is often decisive in choosing presidents.
The tension of Shapiro's strategy was on display during a recent swing through this small city, a dot in deeply Republican south central Pennsylvania. He spent 10 minutes ticking through his record as a two-term attorney general and his policy goals if he becomes governor, such as expanding high-speed internet and boosting school funding. But he also acknowledged that he knew what was on the minds of audience members, noting how his wife gives him a simple reminder every morning: “You better win.”
The 49-year-old Shapiro then became more explicit about the implications of a Mastriano win.
“This guy is the most dangerous, extreme person to ever run for governor in Pennsylvania and by far the most dangerous, extreme candidate running for office in the United States of America,” Shapiro told the crowd in Chambersburg, Mastriano's home base in his conservative state Senate district.
Shapiro is managing something of a two-pronged campaign, one built for a conventional election year and another aimed at the tense political environment in the aftermath of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and the overturning of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing abortion rights.
Last month, Shapiro released a TV ad statewide that discussed a case he brought as attorney general against a contractor who agreed to repay wages after Shapiro's office accused it of stealing from workers. Then, he's also aired TV ads describing Mastriano as a threat to democracy, pointing out that Mastriano watched at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, as pro-Trump demonstrators attacked police.
“It was there that day that my opponent sided with the angry mob, marched to the Capitol, breached the police lines, and he did so with one purpose, all of them: they didn’t want your votes to count,” Shapiro told an audience in Gettysburg, prompting one woman to call out, “He’s a traitor.”
That message isn’t lost on the Democrats who go see Shapiro.
“I think this is just a critical election,” said Marissa Sandoe, 29. “I think this election will determine whether we still have a democracy in this nation.”
Shapiro later shrugs off suggestions that, for his supporters, the grist of normal-year gubernatorial politics is being drowned out by existential issues, like saving democracy.
“I’m focused like a laser beam on making Pennsylvanians’ lives better,” Shapiro said.
The first midterm of a new administration is often challenging for the president's party. But for now, polls suggest Shaprio is leading Mastriano and he also has a significant fundraising advantage. Shapiro has run more than $20 million worth of TV ads, while Mastriano has run hardly anything, and nothing since the primary.
Campaigning in the state where Biden was born, Shaprio may benefit from a recovery in Biden's approval.
The president's popularity nationally has improved to 45% from 36% in July, although concerns about his handling of the economy persist, according to a September poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
Republican Party leaders who initially criticized Mastriano as being too extreme to win the fall general election say he could still win, despite his flaws, if the electorate is angry enough over inflation to check every box against Democrats as a vote against Biden.
But Republicans acknowledge Mastriano is running a race focused largely on his right-wing base, instead of reaching out to the moderates who often put winners over the top in one of America’s most politically divided states.
Mastriano has gotten institutional fundraising help, including events headlined by state party leaders, Donald Trump Jr. and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, but Republican strategists have whispered that the fundraisers aren't well-attended and Mastriano went on Facebook this week to complain about a lack of support from “national-level Republican organizations.”
“We haven't seen much assistance coming from them and we're 49 days out,” Mastriano said.
At campaign events, Mastriano promises to be a pro-energy governor and bus migrants to Biden's home in Delaware, and he warns that Shapiro is pursuing an extreme agenda.
“If we’re extreme about anything, it’s about loving our constitution," Mastriano told a rally crowd in nearby Chambersburg earlier this month.
For his part, Shapiro is gamely going about the campaign, taking advantage of Mastriano's weaknesses. The Democrat will be a guest in early October at the annual dinner of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, a group accustomed to endorsing Republicans for governor. Mastriano hasn’t accepted even its invitation to speak to its board, something Shapiro already did.
Building-trades unions that work on power plants, pipelines and refineries in a coal and natural gas powerhouse haven't heeded Mastriano's promises that “we’re going to drill and dig like there’s no tomorrow.”
Instead, they have accepted Shapiro’s middle-of-the-road stance on energy and attacked Mastriano’s support for right-to-work policies as anathema even to rank-and-file members who vote Republican.
“Here’s one thing my members get: They’ll never, ever be with someone who is for right-to-work, ever,” said James Snell, the business manager of Steamfitters Local 420 in Philadelphia.
Shapiro is also taking centrist positions that might help inoculate himself against Mastriano’s attacks.
The race got personal, with Mastriano repeatedly criticizing Shapiro's choice of a private school for his children — a Jewish day school — as “one of the most privileged, entitled schools in the nation.”
Shapiro, a devout conservative Jew, responded that Mastriano — who espouses what scholars call Christian nationalist ideology — wants to impose his religion on others and “dictate to folks where and how they should worship and on what terms.”
Shapiro dug deeper on Mastriano, saying he speaks in “anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic tropes every day.” Mastriano calls those distractions from Shapiro's record as attorney general and failure to stem rising homicides in Philadelphia.
Still, Shapiro is drawing crowds on Mastriano's turf, far from his power base in Philadelphia's upscale suburbs.
It is fertile ground, said Marty Qually, a Democratic county commissioner in Adams County, which includes Gettysburg, because Democrats are riled up like he's never seen before and even Republicans there tell him they cannot accept Mastriano's Christian nationalism or hard-line abortion stance.
It speaks volumes that Shapiro is campaigning in small towns, and not in Democratic strongholds: It means that he's comfortable with where the race is, Qually said.
“Some folks here said: ‘Why do you want to go to Franklin County? That’s where the other guy’s from,’" Shapiro told the crowd in Chambersburg. “Let me tell you something. I’m glad I came. Ya'll are making me feel at home.”
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter: twitter.com/timelywriter.
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