Shapiro’s ads helped Mastriano win the PA Republican primary

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The message in the Republican gubernatorial primary was clear: “If Doug Mastriano wins, it will be a victory for what Donald Trump stands for.”

Ads this spring, both on TV and via Mailer, played up the connection between the two even before Trump endorsed the Pennsylvania State Senator for governor. Mastriano went on to win his crowded primary by a landslide.

Curiously, the Mastriano-Trump ads weren’t funded by Mastriano’s campaign, Republican groups, or any conservative groups: They came instead from alleged anti-governor Josh Shapiro and the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

“I think it was a risky strategy that seems to have paid off,” said Jennie Sweet-Cushman, associate professor of political science at Chatham University in Pittsburgh.

PA Democrats toyed with far-right candidates in the primaries

The strategy of bolstering Republican candidates associated with Trump and his Make America Great Again political brand was not exclusive to Shapiro and the Pennsylvania Democrats. It was a gamble that paid off for Democrats in this case and most others.

According to USA TODAY, left-leaning political action committees and groups like the Democratic Governors Association have spent millions this year rigging Republican primaries to promote far-right candidates.

In congressional races, that meant ads aimed at influencing a House of Representatives race in Michigan and House and Senate races in New Hampshire. This helped pro-MAGA candidates win their Republican primary before being defeated by the Democrats in the general election.

Similar scenarios played out in gubernatorial elections across the country.

In Illinois alone, the Democratic Governors Association paid approximately $35 million to influence the GOP primary. The association also spent more than $1 million to influence the Republican gubernatorial primary in Maryland.

As with the congressional elections, the strategy resulted in overall electoral victories for the Democratic candidates.

In Pennsylvania, Shapiro spent approximately $840,000 in the Republican primary calling Mastriano “one of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters.” That $840,000 ad buy from Shapiro’s spring campaign would account for nearly 20% of Mastriano’s total spend throughout the year-long campaign.

In addition, the Pennsylvania Democratic Party produced a series of mailings with similar messages.

The Republican state senator led the field in most polls. A poll conducted weeks ahead of this spring’s vote put a 14-point lead for Mastriano.

Republican voters eventually made him the party’s nominee with a whopping 24-point victory.

The “pied piper” strategy could be dangerous

Nabilah Islam, a Democratic senator-elect in Georgia’s Senate District 7, said she believes interference in the Republican primary could be dangerous. She likened it to the “pied piper” strategy of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee in 2016.

“I don’t think the Democrats should get involved in boosting the opposition party’s naming identity,” Islam said.

“There’s no reason to play with fire unless you have to. It backfired.”

Communications between the Clinton campaign and DNC, revealed to the public by WikiLeaks, suggested the two were coordinated in 2016 to unseat Trump and other far-right candidates because they might be easier to defeat in the general election. “We need to elevate the Pied Piper candidates to be leaders of the pack and tell the press to take them seriously,” the memo said.

“It gave us Donald Trump,” Islam said, adding that she believes the Democrats are the “people’s party” and should campaign on their own merits alone. “We should not get used to this strategy.”

The Shapiro team didn’t say if their primary message was intended to increase Mastriano’s chances of getting out of the Republican field.

“For weeks, both public and private polls showed that Doug Mastriano was poised to win the Republican primary — and our campaign was primed to ensure Pennsylvanians knew his true record early,” said Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for the governor-elect of Pennsylvania in an email reply. “Mastriano’s entire campaign has focused on banning abortion, restricting voting rights, and overturning the 2020 election just to appease Donald Trump — and we didn’t allow him to gloss over those facts, not even for a second.”

Requests for comment from the Pennsylvania Democratic Party were not responded to in a timely manner.

Blueprint for political success in 2024?

At least for this election cycle, there is no doubt about the results.

Shapiro, who said he intends to continue working as the Commonwealth Attorney General until he assumes his new role, has garnered more votes than anyone in Pennsylvania in the past three ballots and broke a record for the number of votes received by a gubernatorial candidate here. His efforts to have Mastriano counterpoint in the general election were echoed by candidates up and down, contributing to a Democratic victory in the US Senate race and a majority in the state House of Representatives.

“It looks like the strategy that Shapiro used is working,” Sweet-Cushman said.

“I think it showed in the numbers. Obviously we will now all focus on the 2024 presidential race.”

For Douglas Wilson, a North Carolina Democratic strategist who served as senior adviser on the Biden-Harris coordination campaign, there is an inherent contradiction to the Pied Piper strategy.

News that played up candidates’ ties to Trump this spring, Wilson said, almost certainly helped those candidates win their Republican primary. This meant that Shapiro’s characterization of the Pennsylvania race — “the stakes have never been higher” because “democracy … is on the ballot,” with Mastriano being “the most dangerous and extreme candidate in the country” — so likely incompatible with publicity was helped Mastriano to advance to the general elections.

Wilson said he believes Democrats should focus on their own message, especially if Trump formally declares another bid for the White House.

“It’s kind of a catch-22,” Wilson said. “As Democrats, we preach how democracy is threatened, but at the same time we indirectly support candidates who represent a threat democracy just so we can be victorious in the general election.”

“We have to be careful.”

Islam agreed.

“It’s a slippery slope there,” she said. “I don’t think we should get used to it.”

Not that that cynical strategy isn’t tempting, based on recent election results in Pennsylvania and beyond.

“Ultimately, the goal of a political party is to win elections,” Sweet-Cushman said.

Bruce Siwy is a reporter for USA TODAY Network’s Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @BruceSiwy.

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