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4 takeaways from Wednesday night’s Pennsylvania Republican governor’s debate

The leading GOP candidates for Pennsylvania governor are promising to enact new abortion restrictions, repeal no-excuse mail voting — and they're still angling for that Trump endorsement.

Left to right, Republican candidates for Pennsylvania governor Dave White, Lou Barletta, Doug Mastriano, and Bill McSwain during a debate Wednesday night at abc27 studios in Harrisburg.
Left to right, Republican candidates for Pennsylvania governor Dave White, Lou Barletta, Doug Mastriano, and Bill McSwain during a debate Wednesday night at abc27 studios in Harrisburg.Read moreCourtesy: PHL17

The four leading Republican candidates for Pennsylvania governor want more drilling for natural gas, looser conceal-carry rules for guns, and lower taxes for corporations.

And they all want to face state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the de facto Democratic nominee for governor, in the November general election.

Those were some of the areas of agreement in an occasionally combative televised debate Wednesday night, which at times felt as much about the 2020 presidential election as it did the May 17 primary in less than three weeks.

Here’s some of what we noticed.

Still angling for that Trump endorsement

An early question about why former President Donald Trump hasn’t made an endorsement in the race put former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain in the spotlight.

Trump denounced McSwain as a “coward” two weeks ago for not doing more to pursue his baseless claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election. McSwain, as he has throughout his campaign, held up his appointment by Trump as the ultimate credential. He noted he’s the only candidate who served in Trump’s administration.

Former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, who won Trump’s endorsement in his failed 2018 Senate run, touted his early support for Trump in the 2016 election.

“One thing I’ve learned about President Trump is you don’t speak for him,” Barletta said.

» READ MORE: Trump is sowing chaos in the Pennsylvania governor’s race

State Sen. Doug Mastriano has learned that, too. He said last year that Trump asked him to run for governor, prompting a Trump spokesperson to to push back by noting no endorsement had been made.

Mastriano said his three decades serving in the U.S. Army should make him an attractive candidate to Trump, and to voters.

Former Delaware County Council member Dave White said he’s met with Trump and praised his ability to grow the Republican Party.

The candidates agree on repealing no-excuse mail voting

The candidates each supported rolling back the 2019 state law expanding mail voting, which passed with broad Republican support and was signed into law by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

A Commonwealth Court judge this year found the law unconstitutional, but it remains in effect while the state Supreme Court considers an appeal.

McSwain criticized Mastriano’s vote in favor of the law.

“Act 77 was brought to you by Doug Mastriano,” McSwain said.

» READ MORE: Everything you need to know about voting in Pennsylvania's May 2022 primary election

Mastriano responded that the law “was hijacked by the Democrats.”

And Mastriano said he would “clean up the election logs” — appearing to call for all nine million Pennsylvania registered voters to have their registrations wiped off the books.

“We are going to reset, in fact, registration,” he said. “You have to re-register. We’re going to start all over again.”

Promising tighter abortion restrictions

Under Pennsylvania law, abortion is generally legal until about 24 weeks into a pregnancy. If Republicans retain control of the legislature in the November elections, a GOP governor would almost surely be able to sign new abortion restrictions into law.

Mastriano, who has sponsored legislation that would effectively ban abortion after about six to eight weeks, said he would “move with alacrity” to enact that bill. He said he wouldn’t allow any exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the mother.

“I’m at conception, we’re gonna have to work our way towards that,” Mastriano said.

White took a similar position. “I believe in the sanctity of life,” he said, “and I would be a governor that would protect life.”

“I would not have any exceptions,” White added. “I would certainly work down to no exceptions at all.”

McSwain said he would allow exceptions for of rape, incest, and the life of the mother.

Barletta agreed, adding that he would sign “any bill” that would “protect the life of the unborn.”

The candidates, asked if a woman who has an abortion or a doctor who performs one should be punished, generally agreed that doctors who break the law should face consequences. None favored prosecuting women who undergo them.

“Should somebody be punished for some hypothetical violation? No,” McSwain said. “I think you have to respect the law.”

A few shots taken

Mastriano, who has long pushed lies about the 2020 election being stolen, matched Trump’s rhetoric by calling McSwain “a coward” who “left me hanging” when Mastriano held a public hearing after the election. Trump famously called into that hearing.

Barletta also went after McSwain, suggesting he had voted for Barack Obama for president, something McSwain denied. Barletta later offered a backhanded apology, telling McSwain he meant to say he had supported Bill Clinton, since he was a registered Democrat until 2004.

And Barletta said he’s the candidate Republicans can trust. “I am proven, road-tested and ready,” he said. “I am pro-God, pro-gun, pro-family, pro-life, and pro-America.”

Mastriano pointed to the subpoena he received from the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. He said he’s “been fighting for election integrity and taken the shots – even subpoenaed by this McCarthyist Democrat cabal in Congress.”

He did not say whether he’s complied with the subpoena, which seeks documents and testimony about his involvement in efforts to overturn the election.

McSwain pitched himself as a “conservative outsider” — in contrast to what he called the “career politicians” sharing the stage. He highlighted Mastriano’s March 2020 statements in support of lifting federal privacy protections to identify COVID-19 patients.

“If he were governor, our personal medical information would have been broadcast out,” McSwain said. “That’s bad for Pennsylvania.”

White, who owns an HVAC company, said: “We need someone who is like the people of Pennsylvania, a blue collar worker that worked hard to grow a business.”