MALVERN, Pa. (AP) — On a chilly Saturday morning in mid-October, state and national Republican Party leaders made their way to a hotel patio restaurant in the critically important Philadelphia suburbs to energize loyalists heading into next month's election that features an awkwardly fitting pair at the top of the Pennsylvania ticket.
After citing what they said were the failings of Democrats, the party officials introduced the keynote speaker: Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Senate nominee against Democrat John Fetterman in a race that could decide control of the chamber and the fate of President Joe Biden’s agenda.
“I am excited to retire the name doctor and let’s make sure he’s a senator,” Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, told the crowd.
Oz, the heart surgeon-turned-TV celebrity, and Mastriano have national political winds at their back. But they are running dramatically different campaigns and targeting two very different types of voters — in ways that may hinder, rather than help, the other.
That dynamic is complicating a Republican path to victory in Pennsylvania on Nov. 8, strategists say, and forcing the GOP into an uneasy balancing act in which the two men only rarely appear together.
Party strategists said it makes sense to avoid Mastriano because he is trailing Shapiro in polls and running a far-right campaign that is driving off the moderate voters that Oz will need to beat Fetterman, the lieutenant governor.
Ryan Costello, a former Republican congressman who once represented this stretch of Chester County, said if he were running for office and were invited to a party event, “I would ask if Mastriano was coming and if they said ‘Yes,’ I would do something else. He’s horrible.”
Mastriano will lose Republican votes in Philadelphia's moderate and heavily populated suburbs, just as Donald Trump did in his 2020 presidential election loss to Biden, Costello said.
GOP officials didn’t respond to questions about Mastriano.
The dynamic isn't lost on Fetterman, who is continually tying Oz to Mastriano. In their Tuesday night debate, Fetterman interrupted Oz's answer to a question on abortion to assert that “you roll with Doug Mastriano!”
The next day, Mastriano mentioned that line in a stump speech in Lancaster County, and chuckled about it —“I like that: Let’s roll together.” But he didn’t mention Oz, only Fetterman.
Like Mastriano, Oz has been endorsed by Trump. But unlike Mastriano, Oz hasn't been warmly embraced by Trump's most loyal voters — the ones that form Mastriano's far-right base.
Mastriano has gone hard after the Trump bloc, sprinkling conspiracy theories about transgender youth into more mainstream GOP talking points on crime and inflation while refusing to answer questions from mainstream, independent news organizations. But that messaging, plus his blanket opposition to abortion, his peddling of Trump's election lies and his presence outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection, has alienated moderates and GOP donors.
“It's like he’s still running a primary campaign,” said Republican campaign strategist Bob Salera. “He's not going anywhere. He's not talking to any groups of people who already aren't going to vote for him in the general election. He's not inviting media into his events. He's not getting a message out beyond his base."
Oz, meanwhile, emphasizes national GOP talking points on crime and inflation, aiming to persuade swing voters and even Democrats. He has campaigned with mainstream GOP figures, including Nikki Haley, Trump’s U.N. ambassador, retiring two-term Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, whom Oz hopes to succeed.
Mastriano has campaigned with far-right figures, including propagandists, QAnon conspiracy theorists, election deniers, self-described prophets and Christian nationalists such as Michael Flynn, who once led the U.S. military’s intelligence agency and now is at the center of a far-right Christian nationalist movement.
Toomey hasn't endorsed Mastriano.
Mastriano had been set to speak at Flynn's two-day ReAwaken America conference last weekend in Manheim, but skipped it without explanation. Most recently, he has campaigned with propagandist Jack Posobiec, perhaps best-known for peddling the conspiracy theory “ pizzagate, ” which suggested Hillary Clinton was running a pedophile ring out of a pizzeria.
“That’s who he surrounds himself with: white supremacists, extremists," Shapiro, the two-term attorney general, said in an interview. “He's the only candidate in the nation who is actively out recruiting white supremacists on Gab to be part of his campaign. So it shouldn’t surprise us. He's the guy who wore the Confederate uniform on the grounds of the Army War College. This is who he is.”
Fetterman and Shapiro have no such issues appearing together. They show up at the same major party events and union rallies, such as one 30 miles away in Philadelphia where they threw an arm around each other and mugged for rallygoers' cameras.
Mastriano can still help Oz, strategists say, by getting the party’s base to come out and vote for Oz. But Oz will have to attract moderate Republicans in places such as Chester County even if they refuse to support Mastriano, Costello said.
“And if he does, that’s where Oz wins,” Costello said.
Mike Mikus, a Democratic political strategist, said that kind of balance can work, but that Mastriano lacks the campaign cash to reach base GOP supporters who might not vote in a midterm election.
Those voters are critically necessary to motivate if the GOP is to win, Mikus said.
“There’s going to be high turnout,” Mikus said. “But there are going to be people who stay home because Oz can't motivate them, and Mastriano would be able to motivate them, but doesn’t have the money or infrastructure to turn them out.”
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Marc Levy, The Associated Press