The GOP’s choke in Pennsylvania was a completely avoidable one.
As per the Macbeth rule of politics, one must always remember that a significant plurality of partisan post-election commentary tends to be 1) tales told by idiots, 2) full of sound and fury, and 3) signifying nothing. In the wake of an overwhelming Democrat victory by PA attorney general Josh Shapiro for the governor’s mansion and a much narrower Democrat victory by John Fetterman in the race to fill Republican Pat Toomey’s Senate seat, the GOP is left in the undesirable position of having to drop the “red wave” mantra and face an inconvenient reality: Dems pulled off a solid performance in Pennsylvania, and the GOP screwed up. Aside from that broad-scale assessment, however, let’s look at three other takeaways from the Pennsylvania midterms that are quickly becoming clear.
1. A Trump endorsement is not enough to win elections in Pennsylvania, but it’s enough to lose them.
Of the innumerable ranks of annoyed PA election watchers, former Bridgewater CEO Dave McCormick is probably near the top of the list right now, along with Doug Mastriano’s shofar consultant and Dr. Oz’s crudité consultant. A successful businessman, McCormick likely had the ability to pull off a Senate victory with Trump’s endorsement, building on a reputation of business success and less perceived floppiness on core conservative issues. And then Trump endorsed Dr. Mehmet Oz, a celebrity doctor who runs a campaign like he shops for margaritas—in embarrassing fashion. The only major positive Oz brought to the table was a Trump endorsement, and that’s not as much of a positive as it once was. Although the race was considered close at the beginning of the night, the progression confirmed sneaking suspicions: Oz’s perceived carpet-bagger status and vaguely right-wing positions weren’t enough to turn PA voters in his favor and close the gap. John Fetterman pulled out a 50.3% win over Oz’s 47.3% in a state that broke 50.1% – 48.9% for Joe Biden in 2020.
In a way, the Trump-like candidate won the PA Senate race. John Fetterman is a Trump-like candidate, putting up a man-of-the-people type facade, tapping into people’s feelings of betrayal by DC politicians, and hammering his opponent in mocking fashion. By doing so, he ended up running a somewhat Trump-style campaign against a candidate who had nothing but Trump’s endorsement to run on.
Oz was a weak candidate from the start: pundits seemed to have understood this. John Fetterman’s campaign staff definitely understood this. It’s quite possible that Oz’s campaign staff understood it too. The only person that seemed not to get it was Donald Trump, and the argument’s quite strong that he bears the blame (blame he will never accept or acknowledge) for thinking that his endorsement would create a path to victory in 2022. In the Keystone State, nothing could be further from the truth.
2. Perceived candidate quality is destiny.
And now we come to the governor’s race, about which much less needs to be said. Doug Mastriano was always dead in the water. Shapiro’s campaign used this opportunity to flip the narrative, focusing on the Attorney General’s connection with Pennsylvania, including his investigations into child sex abuse and repudiation of 2020 election fraud claims. Mastriano was labeled a hardline right-winger obsessed with 2020 election fraud who wanted to ban gay marriage and all abortion without exception.
Here’s the problem with this portrayal: it’s the correct one. Arguing that Dr. Oz is an extreme right-winger is difficult, given the Crudité Enthusiast’s questionable resolve to actually hold the line on conservative issues. Arguing the same for Mastriano is a walk in the park because he fits the bill. Picking Mastriano was a terrible tactical decision; it threw out the opportunity to pick an electable moderate (and by moderate, I mean people who don’t literally treat becoming governor like conquering Jericho Old Testament style) in favor of someone that most voters to the left of Steve Bannon see as a hardliner.
Candidate quality took the backburner in Republican calculations for the governor’s seat, and the party paid for it with an embarrassing, but inevitable defeat. Grievances over 2020, and therefore large portions of the Trumpian agenda, cannot guide the party forward if success is the goal.
3. Candidates have to work for their state, not merely forward a national agenda.
The winners in PA’s senate and governor races have one major thing in common: they both pushed a highly state-centric persona that resonated with voters. Shapiro, for all of his flaws, pushed a track record of working on behalf of Pennsylvania as a key positive for voters. Fetterman made no secret of this strategy, using his track record as lieutenant governor and mayor to bash his opponent for not having a track record at all. It worked. Voters responded.
If there’s anything positive to be taken away from this for conservatives (and I’ll be honest, there’s not much), it’s this: pick less-flawed candidates with a history of working within the state. It matters. Looking at races in places like Florida makes this idea clear: people running at the state level have to be seen as caring about the state and not merely advancing national political interests. Anything less is a pathway to defeat, and the GOP has just learned a very hard lesson about exactly what that defeat looks like.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.