Oz-Mastriano: A clumsy couple on Pennsylvania’s GOP ticket

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MALVERN, Pa. (AP) — On a chilly Saturday morning in mid-October, state and national Republican Party leaders made their way to a hotel terrace restaurant in the all-important Philadelphia suburbs to bolster loyalists preparing for next month’s election, which have an awkward situation matching pair at the top of the Pennsylvania ticket.

After citing the Democrats’ failings, party officials introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Senate nominee against Democrat John Fetterman in a race that could decide chamber control and the fate of President Joe Biden’s agenda.

“I look forward to retiring the Doctor name and making sure he becomes a Senator,” Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel told the crowd.

Nowhere in sight — and not even mentioned — was Doug Mastriano, the GOP nominee for governor versus Democrat Josh Shapiro.

Oz, the heart surgeon-turned-TV personality, and Mastriano have a national political wind on their backs. But they’re running dramatically different campaigns and targeting two very different types of voters — in ways that may hinder rather than help the other.

That dynamic is complicating a Republican path to victory in Pennsylvania on Nov. 8, strategists say, forcing the GOP to perform an awkward balancing act in which the two men rarely appear together.

Party strategists said it makes sense to avoid Mastriano because he is trailing behind Shapiro in polls and is running a far-right campaign that is driving out the moderate voters that Oz will need to beat Fetterman, the lieutenant governor.

Ryan Costello, a former Republican congressman who once represented that part of Chester County, said if he was running for office and invited to a party event, “I would ask if Mastriano would come and if they said ‘yes.’ , I would do something else. He’s terrible.”

Mastriano will lose Republican votes in the temperate and dense Philadelphia suburbs, just as Donald Trump did in his 2020 presidential election loss to Biden, Costello said.

GOP officials did not respond to questions about Mastriano.

The momentum isn’t lost on Fetterman, who constantly ties Oz to Mastriano. In her Tuesday night debate, Fetterman interrupted Oz’s response to a question about abortion to claim that “You’re rolling with Doug Mastriano!”

The next day, Mastriano mentioned that line in a blunt speech in Lancaster County and chuckled at it — “I like that: let’s roll together.” But he didn’t mention Oz, only Fetterman.

Like Mastriano, Oz was endorsed by Trump. But unlike Mastriano, Oz was not warmly welcomed by Trump’s most loyal constituents – those who make up Mastriano’s far-right base.

Mastriano has cracked down after the Trump bloc, spreading conspiracy theories about transgender youth into more mainstream GOP talking points about crime and inflation, while refusing to answer questions from independent mainstream news organizations. But that message, plus his blanket opposition to abortion, his peddling of Trump’s election lies, and his presence outside the US Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot, alienated moderates and GOP donors.

“It’s like he’s still fighting a primary,” said Republican campaign strategist Bob Salera. “He’s not going anywhere. He doesn’t speak to any groups of people who are already not going to vote for him in the general elections. He does not invite media to his events. He gets no message beyond his base.”

Oz, meanwhile, is emphasizing national GOP talking points on crime and inflation to win over swing voters and even Democrats. He has feuded with mainstream GOP greats including Nikki Haley, Trump’s ambassador to the UN, retired Republican Senator Pat Toomey, whom Oz hopes to succeed.

Mastriano has struggled with far-right figures, including propagandists, QAnon conspiracy theorists, election deniers, self-proclaimed prophets, and Christian nationalists like Michael Flynn, who once ran US military intelligence and is now at the center of a far-right Christian nationalist movement.

Toomey did not support Mastriano.

Mastriano was scheduled to speak at Flynn’s two-day ReAwaken America conference in Manheim last weekend but skipped with no explanation. Most recently, he has feuded with propagandist Jack Posobiec, perhaps best known for promoting the ‘pizzagate’ conspiracy theory, which suggests Hillary Clinton runs a pedophile ring from a pizza joint.

“That’s who he surrounds himself with: white supremacists, extremists,” Shapiro, the two-term attorney general, said in an interview. “He is the only candidate in the nation actively recruiting white supremacists on Gab to participate in his campaign. So it shouldn’t surprise us. He’s the guy who wore the Confederate uniform on the grounds of the Army War College. That’s him.”

Fetterman and Shapiro don’t have such problems when they perform together. They show up at the same big party events and union events, like one 30 miles away in Philadelphia where they hugged and mugged the cameras of rally-goers.

Mastriano can still help Oz, strategists say, by getting the party’s base to come out and vote for Oz. But Oz needs to attract moderate Republicans in places like Chester County, even if they refuse to support Mastriano, Costello said.

“And when he does, Oz wins,” Costello said.

Mike Mikus, a Democratic political strategist, said that kind of balance can work, but Mastriano lacks the campaign money to reach grassroots GOP supporters who might not vote in a midterm election.

Those voters are vital to motivate if the GOP is to win, Mikus said.

“There will be a high turnout,” said Mikus. “But there will be people who stay home because Oz can’t motivate them, and Mastriano could motivate them but doesn’t have the money or infrastructure to fire them.”

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Follow Marc Levy on Twitter: twitter.com/timelywriter.

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