5 takeaways from the Pennsylvania primary election
The Republican Senate cliff-hanger left us with lingering questions about Donald Trump's influence as the vote count rolled into Wednesday.
We thought we’d have all the answers. But on one big question, we’re still waiting.
While the two big front-runners won the Democratic Senate and Republican gubernatorial primaries Tuesday, Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate race left us with a cliff-hanger, and lingering uncertainty, as the vote count rolled into Wednesday.
Still, here’s what we learned about Donald Trump’s influence over the GOP, the Democratic rally behind Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, and how abortion will be a major issue in the governor’s race.
Trump-style politics still dominate the GOP
The Republican Senate primary was even tighter than expected, leaving questions about both the immediate issue — who’s going to battle Fetterman for the open Senate seat in November — and a broader one: Does Trump still have the power to shape the GOP?
At least for now, this test of Trump’s clout produced a messy result.
His endorsed Senate candidate Mehmet Oz was locked in an excruciatingly tight contest Wednesday that was likely headed for an automatic recount — despite Trump pouring energy into the contest with a rally, a robocall, a phone call into Oz’s closing campaign event, and an Election Day radio interview. Meanwhile, the GOP rival that Trump slammed as a candidate of the establishment and “globalists,” David McCormick, was running right alongside Oz, not certain to win, but certainly not vaporized either.
And while the Trump-endorsed gubernatorial candidate, State Sen. Doug Mastriano, won big, that result had little to do with the former president. Mastriano was well on his way to victory before Trump endorsed him three days before the primary.
This wasn’t like Trump powering J.D. Vance to a big win in Ohio’s Senate primary earlier this month.
Still, even if Trump might not win decisively, Trumpism still dominated.
Almost every major candidate in both the Senate and gubernatorial races tried to align themselves with Trump — whether they were a clean fit or not.
It’s hard to imagine a successful Mastriano candidacy without Trump paving the way for a divisive figure who infuriates liberals, and maybe many moderates, but still rallies a segment of the right.
Oz played up his identity as a “conservative outsider” and rode Trump’s endorsement for all it was worth, despite a history of statements breaking with conservative orthodoxy on issues like abortion and guns. McCormick, despite a background that looks like one of a classic Chamber of Commerce Republican, presented himself as an “America First” conservative, even after Trump personally slammed him.
And while Kathy Barnette fell short of the expectations raised by her late surge, she still won about 25% of the vote on a shoestring budget while running as probably the most authentically MAGA candidate in the field — potentially pulling support that might have gone to Oz.
Whatever Trump’s actual influence on votes — and if Oz pulls it out, even moving votes by a couple percentage points would prove decisive — it’s clear that his style of politics is still guiding GOP candidates.
A McCormick win, though, might test the staying power of Trump’s influence.
Some advisers pitched him as a potential replica of Glenn Youngkin, who scored a major upset in last year’s Virginia governor’s race by running close to Trump in the primary before creating distance in the general election.
If McCormick becomes the nominee, it’s worth watching to see how he pivots toward a general election audience. But within the GOP, all the candidates nodded to the former president’s power.
With Fetterman, Democrats flip the script
In big, competitive elections, Democrats have so often gone for the conventional over the unorthodox: Joe Biden in 2020, Hillary Clinton in 2016, and that same year, the establishment-backed Senate candidate Katie McGinty over the defiant Joe Sestak and a small-city mayor with tattoos and a compelling story but little money named John Fetterman.
On Tuesday, the party flipped the script.
Fetterman, now the lieutenant governor, ran away with the Democratic nomination, easily defeating State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, the candidate who fit the conventional, middle-of-the-road Democratic profile and was embraced by much of the party establishment. Lamb didn’t speak at his own election night event after losing in a rout, but pledged to support Fetterman.
And while you might not call the sitting LG an “outsider,” Fetterman is clearly different from most Democrats, and got a cold shoulder from most party insiders. After Trump remade the GOP to champion the white, working class, Democrats are hoping Fetterman, with his own populist approach, can win back those same voters, while also appealing to core progressives.
He made his plans clear in an email blasted to supporters seconds after news organizations declared him the winner, saying 2022 is going to be tough for his party.
“A typical Democrat, running a typical campaign, is going to struggle. To win PA in 2022, we’re gonna have to do things differently. Dems cannot run the same playbook that has failed in years past,” he wrote, pledging to campaign in all 67 counties, including ones that have increasingly pumped up Republican margins.
“Look, I can win in places other Democrats can’t because I’m a different kind of Democrat,” he added.
When Fetterman faces off against Oz or McCormick, it’ll offer Democrats a chance to upend recent narratives pitting elitist liberals against populist conservatives. This time, they’ll have the candidate from the Rust Belt with the everyman touch — albeit with his own Harvard degree — running against a wealthy rival who has long run in elite coastal circles.
And Democrats are eager to change sides in that argument.
Mastriano’s money challenge
After coasting to victory in the GOP primary, Mastriano faces an immediate cash challenge in the general election: He’ll have far less of it than his Democratic opponent, and might not get the national support that would normally help fill the gap.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee, enters the general election with a huge financial advantage over Mastriano. Shapiro’s campaign reported $15.8 million in the bank as of May 2, according to financial filings — about 20 times as much as Mastriano’s $792,000.
And there’s no guarantee national Republicans will invest in Pennsylvania.
The Republican Governors Association on Tuesday said it “remains committed to engaging in competitive gubernatorial contests where our support can have an impact in defending our incumbents and expanding our majority this year.” Contrast that with an RGA statement last week praising the GOP nominee in Nebraska as “a true conservative that will bring his private sector experience to make government run more like a business.”
And Matt Brouillette, head of one of the state’s biggest Republican political action committees, has made clear he doesn’t think Mastriano can win in November. Some Republicans have already started talking openly about shifting focus to protecting their majorities in the state legislature.
But Mastriano demonstrated in the primary that he can beat better-funded candidates. For example, while Mastriano spent about $370,000 on TV ads, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain and his allies spent more than $11 million.
Abortion on the ballot in the governor’s race
The leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion that would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision has already put abortion at the forefront of the midterm elections.
And both candidates for governor are leaning into the issue.
Mastriano has sponsored legislation that would ban abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy, without any exceptions.
”You want to talk about extreme? Democrat governors around the nation here want to kill babies even up to birth, and some are talking about after birth,” Mastriano said in his victory speech Tuesday night. “That’s extreme. That’s denying the science. That’s immoral. Every baby deserves the right to life.”
Shapiro this month started running ads highlighting Mastriano’s support for a so-called “heartbeat” bill, which would prohibit abortion after ultrasound screening picks up an embryo’s cardiac activity.
“Mastriano wants to dictate how Pennsylvanians live their lives — that’s not freedom,” Shapiro said in a statement Tuesday. ”Real freedom comes when we trust Pennsylvanians to make their own decisions about who they love, who they pray to, and how and when they start a family here in our Commonwealth.”
Outgoing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed multiple bills that would restrict abortion access. Abortion is generally legal in Pennsylvania until 24 weeks of pregnancy.
The Barnette buzz falls short
For the final week of the race, Kathy Barnette was one of the biggest political stories in the country. But the results Tuesday fizzled.
Barnette won about 25% of the vote, a strong showing for someone who spent about $2 million on her campaign, but far off of polls that suggested she was within striking distance of a massive upset. She was about 80,000 votes behind the top two early Wednesday.
That could indicate a polling error, or that Oz and McCormick’s barrage of late attacks took their toll and stopped her momentum.
But Barnette may still have had an impact. Consider Montgomery County, where she and Oz both live, and where Barnette pulled about 35% of the vote, compared to his 28.5%. In the third largest county in the state, that’s a big gap, and a lot of votes Oz would surely liked to have had for his close run with McCormick.
Will Barnette be able to parlay her strong showing into another run? She gained national attention in the last few days. At the same time, she’s now lost her two runs for public office, and won’t surprise anyone the next time.