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Pa. GOP insiders are plotting an 11th-hour plan to stop Doug Mastriano in the governor’s race

Republican leaders are trying to corral Mastriano’s four leading rivals to urge all but one of them to drop out – and endorse the one with the best poll numbers.

Pennsylvania State Sen. Doug Mastriano.
Pennsylvania State Sen. Doug Mastriano.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP

Pennsylvania Republican insiders are making a last-ditch effort to rally behind a single candidate in the gubernatorial primary – and defeat the front-runner, Doug Mastriano.

Republican leaders are trying to corral Mastriano’s four leading rivals to urge all but one of them to drop out — and endorse the one with the best poll numbers. One version of the proposal calls for rallying behind former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, who was well-liked by former President Donald Trump and polling in second place in the latest public survey. It’s a long-shot ploy a week before the primary that many Republicans believe is likely to fail.

But it reflects the panic in some quarters over the likelihood Mastriano, a far-right state senator from Franklin County, will lead the GOP ticket this fall.

“Everyone is coming to the realization we should have come to two months ago,” said a source close to one of the campaigns: that Mastriano would lose a general election by double digits to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, and there needs to be a single alternative.

Hoping to head off that possibility, a number of party insiders and representatives of the campaigns chasing Mastriano met this week to discuss coalescing around just one of the alternatives for governor — Barletta, state Senate leader Jake Corman, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, or Dave White, a former Delaware County councilman. None have been able to catch Mastriano, but organizers of the effort hope that by uniting, they might stop a candidate who has a strong floor of support, but perhaps a limited ceiling given some of his views.

Corman has not gained nearly as much traction as the others, and some insiders are reluctant to rally behind McSwain because Trump specifically urged primary voters not to back him. Trump last month called McSwain a “coward” for not prosecuting baseless claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election.

Yet no deal was struck, with several sources saying White refused to drop out because he thinks he still has a chance to win, and has personally invested in his campaign, lending or giving it $5 million. But two of the sources are still optimistic a deal could be reached as early as Wednesday, when the results of an independent, private poll are expected to come in. The Republican sources spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details of private discussions.

Still, many griped that it was far too late — a week from the May 17 primary — for the party to take action. The state GOP declined to endorse at its winter meeting in February, leaving a sprawling field intact.

» READ MORE: Pa. voter guide: What to know about the May 17 primary

Any agreement would face huge hurdles. The rival candidates would have to trust one another to keep their words. They’d have to agree to elevate one of them at the expense of the rest. And the campaigns would have to somehow communicate their move to voters — in less than a week, and with all of their names already printed on ballots.

About 74,000 registered Republicans have already returned mail ballots to county election offices, according to the data provided by the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees elections.

The move in the governor’s race also comes as a Mastriano ally, Kathy Barnette, is rising in the Republican Senate primary, now within striking distance of the lead in that race, creating similar fears that her views might endanger a critical Senate seat.

A Fox News poll released Tuesday reflected the insiders’ dilemma, and their seemingly weakening grip on the party. Mastriano had 29% support among Republican primary voters, with Barletta, his closest competitor, at 17%. GOP insiders have long feared Mastriano could win in a fractured field, despite winning a relatively small portion of the primary vote.

Barnette, meanwhile, is running roughly even with the big-spending Mehmet Oz and David McCormick in the Senate race, according to the Fox News poll and recent private surveys described to The Inquirer.

General election worries

Mastriano says he’s running to “restore our families, our economy, and to make us the greatest state in the nation.”

“The lockdowns assaulted our freedoms, masking our children, closing our businesses, and confining the elderly,” Mastriano says in a TV ad. “We stood together through those dark times protecting medical freedom, reopening our economy and our schools.”

But a recent poll from Osage Research crystallized some of the party insiders’ fears: Among the 600 general election swing voters surveyed, they preferred a Republican governor over a Democrat by 3 percentage points — 42% to 39%. But Shapiro led Mastriano among this cohort, 49% to 41%.

“This includes Mastriano losing an astounding 23% of the swing Republicans to Shapiro,” said a May 8 memo accompanying the poll, commissioned by a Pennsylvania GOP insider. “This is an unsustainable number for a general election nominee for a party.”

Meanwhile, some Republican leaders are making late endorsements in a public bid to cut off Mastriano. Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) threw her support behind White on Monday.

“Senator Mastriano has appeal to base republicans but I fear the Democrats will destroy him with swing voters,” she wrote on Facebook. “I will be supporting whoever wins the primary for sure, but the best candidate to win the general is Dave White.”

And Barletta’s campaign said he would be joined Wednesday by former Gov. Mark Schweiker and former Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley for a “major campaign announcement.”

» READ MORE: What to know about Pennsylvania's 2022 governor's race

Mastriano has held significant leads in virtually every public poll of the governor’s race, but many party insiders believe his views will be toxic in the general election and could cost the GOP the governor’s office in what is shaping up as a historically strong election environment for Republicans.

Mastriano took buses to the Jan. 6, 2021, rally that led to the Capitol attack and was a prominent figure in Trump’s effort to overturn the election. Congressional investigators have subpoenaed him in connection with the riot.

The GOP insiders involved in the effort to stop Mastriano are said to include Andy Reilly, Pennsylvania’s Republican national committeeman; Matt Brouillette, the head of a well-funded conservative political group; and Corman, himself a candidate for governor who almost got out of the race last month.

Reilly said the talks were prompted by a recent move from Shapiro, the presumptive Democratic nominee, who has started to advertise in a way that seems certain to boost Mastriano. He said that raised concerns among GOP candidates.

“Those concerns have led to discussions among the campaigns of which I have been occasionally involved,” he said in a statement. “As the state party voted not to endorse a candidate any decision a campaign makes to endorse another candidate, suspend their campaign or stay in the race, is entirely the decision of that campaign.”

If Mastriano and Barnette prevail, despite being vastly outspent by their rivals, it would reflect the growing populist power of GOP base voters — and the decreasing influence of traditional party leaders, who have largely backed other options.

The worries over Mastriano in some ways mirror the fear that rippled through the Republican Party when Trump won the presidential nomination in 2016, over the objections of nearly all of the GOP establishment. But the party couldn’t rally around an alternative then — and Trump proved to be more successful politically than most in either party ever anticipated.

Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.