Understanding the results of the critical Pennsylvania primaries

·3 min read
PA candidates.
PA candidates. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Pennsylvania voters cast their ballots in their state's primary on Tuesday, and the stakes were and will remain high. With incumbent Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf facing a term limit and two-term Republican Sen. Pat Toomey retiring, two critical offices are wide open in November. For Republicans, control of governorships in critical purple states could create a path to victory, however dubious, in a close, contested election. For Democrats, Pennsylvania's open Senate seat is one of their few pickup opportunities as they seek to expand a perilously narrow Senate majority. Here's everything you need to know:

Did Trump endorse anyone in the race?

For the GOP, the last-minute endorsement by former President Trump of gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano appears to have increased his momentum: He won his race by more than 20 points. A prominent 2020 election conspiracy theorist, Mastriano is also the product of the new conservative religious fervor, frequently speaking in apocalyptic terms while simultaneously pushing what is now the party line on culture war issues like "Critical Race Theory" and banning trans women from participating in women's sports. The state party establishment, slow to realize the threat of Mastriano's candidacy, finally coalesced around former Rep. Lou Barletta, but it was too little too late.

For Democrats, Mastriano is the guy they wanted to face. But if he prevails in November, he could refuse to certify the winner of a close 2024 presidential election, perhaps collaborating with the state's Republican-led legislature to send GOP electors to Washington no matter what the state's voters have to say. Mastriano's fervent belief that Trump was the real winner in 2020 is what likely earned him the endorsement.

Were all his Pennsylvania endorsements successful?

Trump is not a magician. His endorsement of Mehmet Oz, better known as TV's "Dr. Oz,"  in the GOP Senate primary did not appear to achieve much. The uninspiring Oz, dogged by accusations of carpetbagging, struggled to put together a coherent message and rationale for his candidacy. The late momentum was with conservative media personality Kathy Barnette, whose joint appearances with Mastriano helped raise her profile. But the fallout from photographs surfacing of her marching alongside neo-fascist Proud Boys at the Jan. 6, 2021 Stop the Steal rally that preceded the Capitol insurrection might have iced her candidacy. She will finish a distant third.

As of Wednesday morning, the race was down to the wire between establishment candidate Dave McCormick, a finance wizard who served in the George W. Bush administration, and Oz, who had opened up a very narrow lead. While Oz would be an odd choice for a rapidly radicalizing Republican Party, he wouldn't create a panic in Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's circles, either. This means that Republicans have avoided a worst-case scenario candidate in at least one of these two major races. It also suggests that Trump's value as a kingmaker might be on the wane if he couldn't deliver an easy victory for an already-famous candidate.

How are Democrats feeling about the primaries?

Democrats have to be quite happy with what happened yesterday. While there is no love lost between idiosyncratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the winner of the Senate primary, and the national party establishment, the plain-spoken Fetterman has a unique appeal that many enthusiasts believe can cut into GOP margins in the state's rural, white working-class enclaves, and not even a mild stroke on Friday could knock him off the path to victory against moderate Rep. Conor Lamb. In the gubernatorial race, incumbent State Attorney General Josh Shapiro ran unopposed, a sign that both party elites and activists recognize the potentially grave consequences of losing the governor's race.

Is there a reason Democrats should hold off on the champagne?

The last thing Democratic strategists wanted in Pennsylvania was to run against competent clones of Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), whose anodyne optics reassured voters frustrated with COVID restrictions and uninspired by Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe that a vote for change wouldn't usher in some kind of embarrassing MAGA circus. Still, 2016 should have proven to Democrats that candidates they view as too loopy or too far outside the mainstream can still win. The national environment for Democrats remains sour, with Republicans averaging a 2.5-point lead in generic congressional ballot polling. Because Pennsylvania already votes to the right of the country as a whole (by about 2.9 points, according to Five Thirty Eight), such a climate should in theory give Republicans a major advantage in both races.

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