During the gubernatorial primary campaign that ended on Tuesday in Pennsylvania, Democrat Josh Shapiro, the favorite to win his primary, ran ads portraying Republican candidate Doug Mastriano as too extreme and Trumpy to win. Mastriano went on to win on the Republican side, and now he and Shapiro will face off in November. The New Republic's Alex Shepard frets that Shapiro might have made a big mistake.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. An erratic, buffoonish Republican with dangerous ideas is rising in the polls and surging into contention in his party primary. Democrats ... see the more extreme candidate as an easy mark and boost his candidacy. In some instances, they open their own wallets, spending big on elaborate ad buys that help him broaden his appeal with primary voters. This guy, after all, is too crazy to win the general election, right?
Much of what I’ve described above is, basically, the plot of the movie Trump ’16....
Six years later, Democrats find themselves facing the same set of perverse incentives in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race.
... the Shapiro campaign ... spent more than $800,000 on ads that, according to Politico, “attacked Mastriano as too conservative for voters ... which actually boosted him on the right....Case in point: The ad called [Mastriano] ‘one of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters’—which, to many GOP primary voters, is a feature, not a bug.”
But there wasn't a well-funded Democratic campaign to promote Trump in 2016. Some Democrats thought he was the easiest candidate to beat, but no one ran millions of dollars of ads (which would be the national equivalent of Shapiro's ad buy) defining Trump in the way Shapiro defined Mastriano.
Shapiro's ads might have driven more Mastriano voters to the polls, but even Shepard acknowledges that they didn't put him over the top.
Naturally, the ads weren’t necessarily the difference-maker in a primary Mastriano won by more than twenty points.
Although Shepard subsequently walks back his own concession of this point.
The 2022 midterms are ... likely to be a bloodbath for Democrats—Republicans are angry and they’ll be out to repudiate Joe Biden and his party. It’s not a great environment for them to engineer the nomination of a candidate who’s promised to subvert a presidential election if he’s given the chance.
So which is it? Would Mastriano have won without Shapiro's intervention -- which is what the numbers suggest -- or did Shapiro "engineer" his primary victory?
It's not as if any of the choices on the GOP side were palatable. As The Bulwark pointed out last month, all five of the serious contenders in the GOP primary -- Mastriano, Lou Barletta, Bill McSwain, Dave White, and Jake Corman -- were 2020 election conspiracists. Barletta, the only candidate apart from Mastriano who ever held a lead in the polls, is an immigration hard-liner who made his name as a mayor in 2006 for backing one of the most draconian anti-immigrant laws in America.
Manipulating the other side's primary has worked in the past. In 2012, Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill ran $2 million worth of ads in the Republican primary and got the extreme opponent she wanted, Todd Akin. Akin's campaign imploded when he asserted that women don't get pregnant as a result of "legitimate rape," and McCaskill won.
Intervention also worked for Richard Nixon in 1972. His campaign's dirty tricks drove a strong Democratic candidate, Ed Muskie, out of the race. George McGovern, a weaker opponent, went on to lose 49 states in the general election.
The seemingly weak Republican won the presidency in 2016 largely because so many people, particularly in the mainstream media, hated the Democrat. In 2016, Hillary Clinton made mistakes, and she was fighting to prevent a party shift in control of the White House that normally takes place after two terms, but she lost because so many people irrationally despise her.
If Josh Shapiro doesn't have a similar burden in Pennsylvania, then this gambit might work.
Published with permission of No More Mr. Nice Blog