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There was a wave election in Pennsylvania — for Democrats

Republicans are scrambling to unify factions ahead of 2024 without a state-level leader to get behind. Some see a clear takeaway: "No one should be extreme."
Josh Shapiro at a campaign event at Temple University in Philadelphia on Nov. 5, 2022.
Josh Shapiro at a campaign event at Temple University in Philadelphia on Nov. 5. Tom Brenner / The New York Times / Redux

As Republicans across the country saw their predictions of commanding victories up and down the ballot fall short on election night, Democrats in Pennsylvania were celebrating signs of a blue wave.

Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro’s more than 14-point win helped boost Sen.-elect John Fetterman to a key victory, marking the first time since the 1940s that Pennsylvania will have two elected Democrats in the Senate. The tailwinds created such promising down-ballot conditions that Democrats won every competitive U.S. House race and appear to have ensured that they will take control of the state House for the first time in more than a decade. Shapiro himself will assume office with a mandate after he won with the largest margin of victory for any nonincumbent governor since 1946.

As the dust settles, Republicans are scrambling to unify various factions ahead of the next presidential election without a state-level leader to get behind — with some, including the party’s failed nominee for lieutenant governor, calling for a recalibration. Democrats, after having tightened their grip on a state that was core to Donald Trump’s 2016 coalition and was the largest swing state by electoral votes to flip to Joe Biden in 2020, are eyeing their resounding success last week as a road map for the future. 

Their strategy was twofold, those involved with the statewide effort said in interviews. First, a relentless, well-funded and early effort helped to define Shapiro’s opponent, far-right state Sen. Doug Mastriano, as the most extreme Republican in the country on abortion rights by using his own past comments against him. Shapiro himself, aiming to shave GOP margins in traditionally red counties, campaigned vigorously in places that had voted for Trump on a message of protecting individual freedoms, expanding economic opportunity for non-college graduates and hiring more police.

“Mastriano’s position on abortion was kind of the poster child for having the worst possible position you could have,” J.J. Abbott, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist who worked on the efforts to define Mastriano, said in an interview, referring to remarks Mastriano made that included saying “my body, my choice” was “ridiculous nonsense” and that he saw no room for exceptions to an abortion ban. Those comments would blanket the airwaves in the run-up to last week’s midterms.

“And what we saw in our testing … Mastriano’s own words were just so, so, so, so revolting to a lot of voters,” he added. “Mastriano represented the most extreme position for voters on abortion. And what that did is open them up to be able to believe that he had other extreme positions.”

Image; Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano is greeted by former president Donald Trump at a rally on Sept. 3, 2022 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Former President Donald Trump greets Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano at a rally in Wilkes-Barre on Sept. 3.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

Many state Republicans said it’s no surprise the strategy worked. Mastriano, most prominently known for having been outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and for having been intimately involved in an effort to appoint fake electors to stop Biden from taking office, emerged victorious from a crowded GOP field despite concerns from some in his party that he was too extreme to beat Shapiro, the state’s attorney general.

“We acknowledge Pennsylvanians at their core are conservative, but we’re also practical, and we need to be practical,” said state Rep. Carrie DelRosso, who emerged from a contested GOP primary for lieutenant governor to be Mastriano’s running mate. “And we shouldn’t go very hard to one side. 

“There’s a meeting in the middle that needs to happen,” she continued. “And no one should be — I hate to say this word — but no one should be extreme. On both sides.”

Mastriano’s limited fundraising and refusal to engage with most media for interviews also made the campaign difficult for Republicans, DelRosso said, because Democrats worked quickly to tie every GOP candidate in a competitive race to Mastriano. 

“Demonizing an opponent can really work,” DelRosso said, adding that the portrayal of Mastriano did not line up with the candidate she came to know.

Democratic operatives and outside groups, including the Democratic Governors Association and Planned Parenthood’s political arm, coalesced around the strategy of attacking Mastriano soon after the May 17 primary. They would define Mastriano as extreme by highlighting his past comments about abortion, which would then provide the gateway for Democrats to talk about other potential liabilities with voters, including his false claims about the 2020 election, his efforts to overturn Biden’s victory in the state, his stated desire to remake Pennsylvania’s elections and his associations with a far-right social media site known as a safe haven for antisemitism.

Abbott said the leak of a Supreme Court draft opinion in early May that showed the court was poised to end federal protections for abortion rights was key to their thinking. 

Mastriano approached the issue “in the most smug way that just completely lacked compassion,” Abbott said. “And so we really saw that as an opening.”

NBC News exit polling showed how important abortion rights. A plurality of voters picked abortion as their most important issue — and Shapiro won them by 80% to 19%. As a state senator, Mastriano had introduced “heartbeat” legislation that would have curtailed abortion rights in the state, and as governor he would have been able to sign new restrictions into law. Shapiro said he supported upholding the status quo in the state, which permits abortion through the 23rd week of pregnancy.

In his concession statement, Mastriano admitted he and his wife, Rebbie, had “not taken the easy road” in his campaign.

"We chose to be exactly who we are, knowing full well the nature of politics," he said. “But we are resolute in our convictions and steadfast in our belief that everyone should walk as free people.” 

While Democrats hammered Mastriano on abortion, Shapiro’s campaign was perfecting how it would limit GOP margins in red areas. Making routine visits to counties that voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020 and contrasting his vision of “freedom” with Mastriano’s, Shapiro was able to find success to an extent that shocked both Democrats and Republicans.

Josh Shapiro
Josh Shapiro speaks at Franklin County Democratic Party headquarters in Chambersburg, Pa., on Sept. 17.Marc Levy / AP file

Vote tallies are illustrative. Trump held a rally to boost both Mastriano and Republican Senate nominee Mehmet Oz three days before the election in the heart of Westmoreland County — one of the most vote-rich Republican bastions in the state. Days later, the results showed Shapiro performing more than 10 points better there than Biden did in 2020. In nearby Washington County, which Trump carried by 22 points, Mastriano won by only 2 points, with Shapiro besting Biden’s performance there by 10 points.

Such results were echoed across the state in Republican, Democratic and swing counties alike. Shapiro, NBC News exit polling showed, won 16% of Republicans and 71% of self-described moderates. Even voters whose most important concern was crime — an issue Mastriano and Oz used to blast their Democratic rivals — favored Shapiro and Fetterman.

“There’s been a lot of talk, especially over the last couple of years, of what the hell Democrats do about” running in red America, said a Pennsylvania Democratic official who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the win.

This person joked they “might tattoo the Washington County” results on their arm: “I think we provided, for the first time, a very, very real, tangible blueprint on that question.”

Chris Deluzio, a Democrat who won a contested House race outside Pittsburgh, said the elections proved that a broadly appealing economic message, coupled with steadfast defense of abortion and voting rights, is a winning ticket.

“We ought to be paying attention to exactly how we did it here,” he said.

For Republicans, there are already calls for a leadership change in the state party, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Mastriano’s defeat is seen as having dragged down the rest of the ticket, and state Republicans say his candidacy paints a stark picture ahead of 2024, when the state will be a focal point of the presidential race, as well as another Senate race.

“I think Republicans are going to be very demoralized here,” a Republican who worked on a Pennsylvania campaign said in an interview. “Not only did we get crushed in the statewide races; we lost all the competitive congressional races, it looks like we’re going to lose the state House races, and there’s really no unifying figure here in Pennsylvania to get the message out.” 

This person, who requested anonymity without authorization to speak to the media about the matter, said Republicans need to better promote the use of mail-in ballots and not turn their voters off from voting early. The 2022 defeats, this person said, would make it much more difficult for Trump, who has announced a third bid for the White House, to win here in 2024. 

More than $250 million was spent on advertising in the Senate contest this year, according to AdImpact data. But while Oz struggled to overcome questions about his residency, Democrats and Republicans both said the election was driven by the Shapiro-Mastriano dynamic.

“You can’t lose the governor’s race by 14 points and then expect to win a close Senate race,” said David La Torre, a Republican consultant in the state. “And that’s exactly what happened. I would tend to think that Mastriano was an anchor around everybody’s neck.”

Dave Ball, the Washington County GOP chairman, agreed: “The Mastriano/Shapiro thing, that just dragged down the whole ticket. 

“It should’ve been a wipeout,” he said, saying the conditions were ripe for Republicans. “To have a wave, you not only have to have the initial motion, but you have to have the driver. It wasn’t there.”