Former President Donald Trump worked his Pennsylvania primary endorsements to make him look like a winner, but exasperated Republicans in the state say the end result could boomerang in ways that damage both the party and Trump's own chances should he run for president in 2024.
“This is the most cockamamie election I’ve ever seen in my life,” Dave Ball, the GOP chairman in Washington County, said in an interview.
In the Senate race, Trump endorsed celebrity TV doctor Mehmet Oz, whose past liberal views made him anathema to many conservatives. Now he’s locked in a too-close-to-call race having received less than a third of the vote, according to NBC News. Three days before Election Day, Trump veered hard to the right in the governor's race by backing Doug Mastriano, the state senator who built a devoted grassroots following for his efforts to overturn President Joe Biden’s win and promote Trump’s stolen election lie.
Mainstream Republicans fear that Mastriano, who had been on track to win the primary anyway before Trump's nod, is too extreme to win a general election in a state with a half million more registered Democrats than Republicans. A Democratic victory in the Pennsylvania contest for governor would reverberate through the 2024 presidential election cycle. The governor gets to appoint the secretary of state, who presides over elections in a swing state that was a focus of Trump’s bid to reverse his 2020 election loss.
“I would think that he [Trump] would be very interested in Doug Mastriano moderating his message and trying to run as someone who can appeal to all Pennsylvanians,” said David Urban, a former Trump campaign adviser who helped him win Pennsylvania in 2016 (Trump lost the state in 2020). “It’s not lost on anybody that the governor of Pennsylvania plays an outsize role in the 2024 election. And Republicans should be concerned about that. They should be concerned about [Democratic nominee] Josh Shapiro as governor because he’s going to be the referee.”
Republican unease is growing ahead of the next big contest on the calendar: Georgia. In no other state has Trump’s heavy hand so divided the party. Georgia Republicans are set to defy Trump in Tuesday’s primary by rallying behind one of his top targets, Gov. Brian Kemp, along with the state’s incumbent insurance commissioner and attorney general.
Trump has recruited or endorsed candidates challenging them all. Yet even his own political operation has grown impatient with David Perdue, the former senator whom Trump recruited to take on Kemp. Trump advisers have told Perdue’s campaign they’d like to see him devote more energy to the race, said a person close to Trump who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Trump remains the most popular figure in the GOP and his endorsement is campaign gold for Republican candidates. But his endorsements nationwide have triggered a backlash from local Republican leaders in Ohio, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Georgia, where they feel as if Trump’s picks were haphazard, reckless or harmful to the party’s broader electoral objectives and even Trump’s long-term interests.
Republican voters in Idaho and Nebraska also bucked Trump’s picks in their respective gubernatorial contests Tuesday and on May 10.
“He endorsed candidates with no appeal to conservatives or candidates who aren’t qualified. It erodes his credibility to a degree,” said former Georgia state Rep. Scot Turner, a Republican.
Turner noted Trump’s pick for Georgia attorney general, John Gordon, wasn’t a practicing lawyer for years and reactivated his law license in 2021 to take part in a failed lawsuit baselessly alleging election fraud. Turner also questioned the conservative bonafides of Trump’s pick in a Georgia congressional race, Vernon Jones, a former Democrat.
A spokesman for Jones, C.J. Pearson, echoed Trump insiders by pointing out the power of his endorsement.
“While the [former] president’s endorsement might not be of any importance to establishment lapdogs and political has-beens, it is important to the people of Georgia’s 10th Congressional District,” Pearson said.
In Pennsylvania, Trump inflamed the situation even more after Election Day by calling on Oz to simply “declare victory” over fellow Republican David McCormick before all the ballots were counted.
“It just makes it harder for them to cheat with the ballots that they ‘just happened to find,’” Trump said on his new social media site, Truth Social, without evidence of any fraud.
Meanwhile, a source close to the McCormick campaign told NBC News Thursday that Trump is "hedging his bet because he knows Oz is going to lose," when asked about Trump's push for Oz to declare victory while making baseless claims of cheating.
Former state GOP chairman Rob Gleason said that “it’s just shocking” for Trump to essentially call for canceling Republican ballots cast in a Republican primary.
“Bitterness has been developing over a period of time. It’s not just this election,” he said. “But this just didn’t help.”
Last year, Trump initially anointed Sean Parnell as his chosen candidate in the Senate race. But Parnell hadn’t been fully vetted and he soon exited the race after losing a child custody battle with his estranged wife, who accused him of domestic violence, a charge Parnell denies.
The field of candidates soon swelled, with McCormick and Oz entering the race, each vying for Trump’s endorsement. Trump stunned some locals by picking Oz, whose conservative bona fides were in doubt because of his past positions on guns, abortions, transgender rights and Covid lockdowns.
“I think Trump stepped out in endorsing Oz … because he loves celebrity,” David La Torre, a former adviser to gubernatorial candidate Jake Corman, said in an interview. “He loves everything about celebrity, when it was obvious there were better choices for him to make.”
The MAGA faithful were in open revolt at a Trump rally in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where the crowd booed Oz. Trump responded by trashing McCormick as well as insurgent MAGA candidate Kathy Barnette, who trails both Oz and McCormick in the vote tally.
Then, in the governor’s race, not only did nine candidates vie for the Republican nomination, but none dropped out until the last weekend. This prevented any consolidation of the field against Mastriano, a far-right state legislator who wants to “reset” the state’s voter rolls, virtually eliminate abortion rights and has campaigned with QAnon adherants. Enthusiastic supporters see him as God’s choice, while many Republicans view him as unelectable in a state where moderates traditionally perform well.
“The frustration comes from there being so many candidates and the high level of voter confusion,” said Jackie Kulback, Republican chairwoman in Cambria County.
For months, Trump did not weigh in on the governor’s race, except to put out a statement telling voters not to cast ballots for former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, who he argued hadn’t done enough to uncover evidence of voter fraud.
As Mastriano surged, Trump on Saturday backed the state senator, who ultimately wound up winning by nearly 25 points, with 45 percent of the vote.
“He waited so long and then when the final polls came out showing that Mastriano had a pretty significant lead, that’s when he chose to step in,” said Richard Stewart, co-chair of the state’s GOP Central Caucus, which represents 24 counties. “He just wanted a winner.”
Trump also endorsed six congressional candidates in Pennsylvania, who had no or token opposition, thereby enabling him to claim that he’s 7-0 in the state, a record that would become 8-0 if Oz can hold on to his razor-thin lead.
Former Pennsylvania Rep. Tom Marino, a Republican who backed Lou Barletta in the governor’s race and, like him, was one of the first members of Congress to back Trump’s candidacy in his initial run, told NBC News that it was “surprising how many people have come up to me and told me they’ve had it with Trump” because of the Mastriano endorsement.
“I was surprised that when I brought home what Trump did to Lou — that he was disloyal — people cheered that and people were pissed off,” he added.
What’s more, Trump’s endorsement of Mastriano may have ultimately hurt his endorsed Senate candidate, according to Marino and Barletta campaign insiders, who said that Barletta backers started flocking to McCormick out of anger. Barletta told people to vote for McCormick in the Senate race and did so himself, one campaign aide said.
As of Thursday afternoon, as mail ballots were slowly counted, Oz led McCormick by about 1,200 votes, less than a tenth of a percent.
“Trump’s endorsement of Mastriano backfired on Oz. There was retaliation. I was surprised by how many people said I’m not voting for anyone Trump endorsed,” Marino said. “They’ve had it with him. They were surprised with just how disloyal he was to Lou.”