“No one wanted him,” the Republican, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said.
Yet in the Republican primary, a starting number of Republican voters did. For months, Republicans had been reviewing internal polling that suggested Mastriano was on track to win 20 percent of the vote or less. He ended up with nearly 44 percent, doubling up on his closest competitor, former Rep. Lou Barletta, while carrying even more moderate Philadelphia and two of its collar counties, Bucks and Montgomery.
“It just broke his way,” said Joshua Novotney, a Republican lobbyist and former adviser to Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. There was the initial 20 percent or so, Novotney said — “folks that wanted to re-hash 2020 … that was his core.” And then there was the rest. “The extra 20 or 23 percent that he gained later on, I think these are people that are fed up and didn’t want to hear the kind of mainstream song and dance. They don’t like what’s going on.”
When I asked Novotney if Mastriano could expand his support from 44 percent of a primary electorate to a majority of the vote in a general election, he paused. In a normal year, maybe not. But many experienced Republican and Democratic strategists assumed in early 2016 that Trump was not electable, either. He carried Pennsylvania, that year. And between inflation and President Joe Biden’s dismal public approval ratings, a measure closely tied to a party’s performance in the midterms, the electoral climate for Democrats is even worse this year than it was then.
“I’d say he’s not running against Josh Shapiro,” Novotney said. “He’s running against Joe Biden, and anything’s possible.”
Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist who ran for governor and finished far back in the field, said Mastriano’s appeal “is pretty clear. It’s the people that are really angry with what’s going on in our country, our state, our society, our neighborhoods,” he said. “They’re pissed off they have to pay five bucks a gallon for gas, that if they can find the groceries they want, they have to pay through the nose for them, and they don’t like what’s going on in our schools, and they want change.”
Now that they have Mastriano, he said, “I’m reminded of the old adage, ‘Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.’”
In rural Pennsylvania, where “Let’s Go Brandon,” “Fuck Biden” and “Trump 2024” signs fill the landscape, it seems possible. And on social media, where Mastriano developed much of his following — filming himself speaking to his supporters online — it seems like providence.
Sitting in front of an American flag, a ring light visible in the reflection of his glasses, Mastriano addresses his supporters as he would his friends: “Hello Matt and Karen … Hey, Steve, good morning … Liz, good to see you. Hi Rachel.”
In return, he gets comments like these:
“We WILL take back our state with God’s grace.”
“God is GREAT.”
“He was appointed by God.”
“Doug has Gods [sic] blessing! Good wins over evil!”
“Glory to God!”
“Incredible victory in Jesus!!!”
Carl Fogliani, a Republican strategist based in Pittsburgh, described Mastriano’s campaign as “like the tea party plus Trump plus the Grateful Dead all wrapped into one.”
Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Republican consultant based in Harrisburg, called it “just a different vibe.”
One Republican familiar with the campaign, granted anonymity to speak candidly, told me, “He’s like Jim Jones in Guyana.”
If everything goes right for Mastriano and wrong for Democrats in November, Mastriano by this time next year could be governor, overseeing one of the most pivotal swing states in the country when the next presidential election is held, in 2024.