Republican Party heavyweights in Pennsylvania are rallying behind former Rep. Lou Barletta in the state’s GOP gubernatorial primary in hopes he can overcome the front-runner — far-right firebrand Doug Mastriano — who they think is doomed to lose in the general election.
Those orchestrating an 11th-hour boost for Mr. Barletta, a longtime figure in state politics, say he is best positioned to beat the presumptive Democratic nominee for governor, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, in the general election.
“He stood on the national stage by himself when he fought against illegal immigration in Hazleton and he has proven to be able to win over Democrats, meaning he will be a strong nominee who can beat Josh Shapiro in November,” said former Pennsylvania senator and GOP presidential contender Rick Santorum.
As Tuesday’s primary approaches, Mr. Barletta’s support has grown. Not only have state and local elected officials rallied behind him but so have some of his GOP primary opponents.
On Thursday and Friday, two other GOP contenders in the race — state Senate President Jake Corman and former Rep. Melissa Hart — withdrew to clear a path for Mr. Barletta.
“The stakes are too high, our Republican primary is too fractured, and we need someone … who is a proven leader, who is a uniter,” said Mrs. Hart. “Someone who can get Democrat votes, and who can lead as a person who has a vision and the values that the people of Pennsylvania support.”
Support began coalescing around Mr. Barletta after recent polls showed him running a strong second to Mr. Mastriano in the nine-person field.
Mr. Mastriano, a state senator, cultivated a far-right image that many believe will make him unacceptable to suburban voters, independents and Democrats who are disheartened about their party.
Mr. Mastriano not only led the charge against the COVID-19 lockdowns but also pushed to decertify the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania over claims of voter fraud. The latter saw Mr. Mastriano organize transportation for protesters to Washington on Jan. 6., 2021, when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol.
“The Republican Party in Pennsylvania is petrified of Mastriano,” said G. Terry Madonna, a senior fellow of political affairs at Millersville University in Pennsylvania. “They think he’s too far-right and can’t win and after eight years of incumbent Democratic governor they’re tired of losing.”
Republicans worried about Mr. Mastriano have plenty of cause for concern. Apart from a penchant for incendiary rhetoric, Mr. Mastriano has proven a lackluster fundraiser and polls show him struggling to overcome Mr. Shapiro in the state’s swing counties.
Democrats have only seemed to validate those GOP concerns. Mr. Shapiro, who is unopposed in the Democratic primary for governor, has begun spending heavily to boost Mr. Mastriano.
Mr. Shapiro is showering Mr. Mastriano with free airtime. In an ad running statewide ahead of the primary, Mr. Shapiro’s campaign touts Mr. Mastrinano as the Republican closest to former President Donald Trump. While the overall ad is slightly negative, it invokes red-meat issues to argue “that if Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for.”
“Both public and private polling indicates that Doug Mastriano is poised to become the Republican nominee on May 17 — and our campaign is prepared to start the general election now and make sure Pennsylvanians know his real record,” said Will Simons, a spokesman for Mr. Shapiro’s campaign.
The Pennsylvania Democratic Party is also working to boost Mr. Mastriano’s chances of becoming the GOP nominee. The party has paid for campaign mailers targeting Republican voters in recent days.
One of the mailers calls the duo “two of a kind,” while another states that “four years of Doug Mastriano would be four more years of Donald Trump.”
Mr. Mastriano’s campaign did respond to requests for comment for this report.
Some Republicans say that nominating a candidate that Democrats are eager to run against is akin to political suicide. They say Mr. Barletta is the only clear alternative in the race with a chance of winning both the primary and the general election.
“The only way that we will not be successful in the fall is if we nominate someone who can’t possibly win,” said Mr. Corman.
Mr. Barletta does not disagree with the assessment. He says the race was always likely to be a dead heat and that his campaign would benefit when Republican voters began looking seriously at who should be the next governor.
“I have a history of beating Democrats, having been elected mayor in a heavily Democratic city and defeated a 26-year incumbent Democrat for Congress,” he said. “I am proven, road-tested, and ready to lead.”
Some question, though, whether they waited too long to back an alternative to Mr. Mastriano.
A Fox News poll released this week showed Mr. Mastriano leading the GOP race with 29% support and Mr. Barletta in second place with 17%.
Mr. Corman and Mrs. Hart, who have since withdrawn but will remain on the primary ballot, took 9% of the vote combined.
Two other candidates, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain and businessman Dave White, combined drew nearly 30% of the vote. Both have refused to exit the race, stirring fears that they will play the role of spoiler.
“It may be a little too late,” said Mr. Madonna. “Although momentum is shifting in Barletta’s direction it remains uncertain if there is enough time in the race.”
Political strategists say an endorsement by Mr. Trump, who so far hasn’t weighed in on the race, could be the difference.
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