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The Pa. GOP’s no good, very bad, terrible election is forcing a reckoning in the state party

Pennsylvania GOP leaders were frustrated with the state party and its decision not to endorse an alternative to Doug Mastriano ahead of devastating losses in this year’s midterm elections.

Pa. Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano addresses a rally alongside former President Donald Trump in Latrobe on Nov. 5.
Pa. Republican gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano addresses a rally alongside former President Donald Trump in Latrobe on Nov. 5.Read moreJacqueline Larma / AP

Republicans had a lousy night nationwide Tuesday. In Pennsylvania, it was an unmitigated disaster.

Within the state Republican Party, some insiders are already maneuvering for change. Ted Christian, a former Trump adviser in the state, and Andy Reilly, the Pennsylvania GOP national committeeman, are both making moves toward potentially replacing the state party chairman, Lawrence Tabas, according to three Republicans familiar with the conversations, who asked for anonymity to disclose private talks.

Reilly said Friday, “I’m happy in my role as national committeeman.” Christian did not returns messages seeking comment.

But even if there’s no shift in leadership, interviews with more than a dozen GOP officials, strategists, and party leaders revealed widespread frustration with the state party, particularly its decision not to endorse an alternative to gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano during the Republican primary.

A wide range of Pennsylvania Republicans said their losses in every major race come back to Mastriano, who took extreme positions, wasn’t competitive in fund-raising, and did virtually no outreach beyond his base on his way to losing to Democrat Josh Shapiro by more than 14 percentage points.

“Mastriano is a huge existential problem for the GOP. We could never nominate someone like him again if we’re serious about winning,” said Mark Harris, a GOP strategist based in Pittsburgh who advised another gubernatorial candidate, State Sen. Pro Tempore Jake Corman.

“The state party was almost invisible,” said Jeff Piccola, the former Republican chair in York County, who resigned that post shortly after the May primary. “I have been around and been an observer of state Republican Party activities since the ’60s, and I have never, ever in that period of time seen the state party so weak and ineffective.”

» READ MORE: Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman helped Democrats defy GOP hopes for a red wave

While the GOP made gains in states such as New York and Florida and still has a shot at winning the U.S. House, that’s no thanks to Pennsylvania. Here, they lost a marquee Senate race, a critical governor’s contest, and all three of the competitive congressional campaigns. The GOP may have also lost control of the state House for the first time in more than a decade.

It would take a two-thirds vote of the party to oust Tabas, the state party chair whose term runs to February 2025, though some Republicans speculated he might resign. Tabas didn’t answer directly when asked.

“This is again maybe some opportunists and some political whiners,” he said in an interview. “But there’s no story here. That’s all I can say.”

He said the state party spent $10 million on election mailers, knocked on 1.5 million doors, and registered 75,800 new Republican voters this year.

“We worked extremely hard on behalf of all of our candidates,” he said. He added that he’s now focused on upcoming judicial and county races.

But many Republicans are still looking back, frustrated at how they blew key elections in a year when inflation was raging and President Joe Biden had low approval ratings.

Interviews with more than a dozen party officials, operatives, and insiders pointed to several worries including:

  1. Donald Trump’s continued influence, given his toxic image in parts of Pennsylvania, and how he motivates Democrats to vote.

  2. Devastating, ongoing losses in the state’s populous suburbs.

  3. The widespread Republican disdain for mail ballots, which some party leaders said makes it harder to turn out their supporters.

“There are a lot of reasons why Republicans should have done well and should have done better than we did,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.). “So it’s time to ask some very tough questions.”

A fateful decision

But the main focus was on Mastriano, a candidate members of both parties say proved so toxic he hurt the GOP in other close races. Even before he won the gubernatorial nomination, Republicans warned he could damage the rest of the ticket.

But he had a fervent base of support, and in the primary was up against a slew of GOP rivals who split the rest of the party support. Several Republicans said in that situation, the state party should have made an endorsement to coalesce around a single alternative, though others noted Mastriano may have prevailed anyway.

In he end, he ran away with the nomination with 44% of the vote. (Trump endorsed Mastriano days before the primary, when it was clear the state senator would win.)

Rob Gleason, a former Republican state chairman, said the party hasn’t recovered from not making its own endorsement.

» READ MORE: ‘It’s time for him to retire’: Some Pa. Republicans want to push Trump aside after their election losses

Mastriano’s call for a total ban on abortion and his leading role promoting election conspiracies made him a perfect foil for Democrats who warned reproductive rights and democracy were on the ballot — shifting attention away from Biden and inflation.

“Republicans need to face the fact that Pennsylvania is not deep blue, but it is blue in a real way,” Harris said. “To win, we have to put the best candidates on the field, and we did not put the best candidates on the field.”

Reilly, the national committeeman, said that it was “a mistake” in hindsight not to endorse in the governor’s race, but that the gubernatorial candidates pushed for the state party to stay out of the race.

Now, he said the party leadership “should have a serious, direct, confidential conversation about how to move forward with respect to the nomination of candidates.”

Tabas also noted that none of the candidates for governor asked for a state party endorsement.

“The party overwhelmingly — leadership of the party too, all of our leaders, the rank-and-file members — voted overwhelmingly not to endorse,” Tabas said in an interview.

Not every Republican said it was the state party’s fault. Some pointed at Trump’s continued, divisive influence. Others said the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade gave Democrats an unusually strong motivation in a midterm election year.

“You can’t impute to a state party leader what happened in this election. There are things so far out of their control,” said David Ball, the GOP chair in Washington County. “To say, ‘It’s all your fault’ is being kind of ridiculous.”

But others said that after such a bad result, the party needs to consider its standing.

”Something has to change. I was an Army officer, and if you lose a battle, you have to figure out why,” said Northampton County GOP Chair Glenn Geissinger.

Controversial sale

The complaints aren’t all new.

Tabas and the state party have faced long-running internal criticism over fund-raising and the strength of the state party. The state Democratic Party’s main political committee roughly doubled the fund-raising of its GOP counterpart this year. And the state GOP has little presence in the public debate, with almost no media outreach. When national Democratic figures such as Biden come to Pennsylvania, it’s typically the national GOP, not the state party, arranging the Republican response.

After the state party sold its headquarters in Harrisburg this year, several insiders took it as a sign of weakness and financial strain, though others said it made sense, given the cost of the site and the new reality of remote work.

Tabas said the sale allowed the party to get out of a roughly $700,000 mortgage on a building that needed many expensive repairs, and move into more modern offices nearby.

Suburban losses

Massive losses in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs, meanwhile, continued Tuesday, alarming Republican strategists. If they face lasting deficits in those areas, it could be extremely hard for a Republican to win statewide.

When Toomey narrowly won reelection in 2016, he won two of Philadelphia’s collar counties, Bucks and Chester. But with Trump as the face of the GOP, the suburbs have rejected Republicans and become a core piece of Democratic support.

Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz tried to make inroads, but the results weren’t much different. He won about 40% of the vote in the four collar counties, almost the exact same share as Trump in 2020. Oz’s 245,000-vote deficit there was more than four times Toomey’s 2016 loss in that area. Those counties accounted for nearly a quarter of the statewide Senate vote as Democrat John Fetterman defeated Oz.

Mail ballot problems

A more mundane part of Trump’s legacy troubled several county chairs: Republican voters’ refusal to use mail ballots, a lingering effect of the former president’s baseless claims about mail voting fraud,

“One of the issues that I struggle with is that Republicans don’t want to embrace mail-in ballots, and people have got to be realistic,” said Jackie Kulback, Republican chair in Cambria County.

Talk about “stolen elections” doesn’t help, .either, said Bill Bretz, chairman of the Westmoreland County Republican Party.

“We’re in equal measure suppressing the vote that we’re trying to get out when you’re putting out a message that your vote doesn’t count,” Bretz said.