Op-Ed by Matt Brouillette. This piece originally appeared in RealClear Pennsylvania.
It was supposed to be a Republican Red Wave. Instead, it turned into a riptide that swept away the GOP’s hopes of reversing harmful Democratic policies.
Across the country, red seats flipped blue, tight races broke away from midterm norms and toward the president’s party, and Donald Trump-backed candidates turned their Democrat-funded primary wins into general election disappointments.
Indeed, both nationwide and in Pennsylvania, Trump had short coattails. And Republicans who won decisive victories – like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu – did so without Trump’s support.
Even as voters consistently said that they feel the pain of inflation, are concerned about crime, and believe that the country is on the wrong track, one emotion surpassed all of these: disdain for former President Trump and, by extension, for his hand-picked candidates who, in many cases, were weak candidates.
Pennsylvania was the poster child for this phenomenon or, as Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) called it, a “debacle” for Republicans.
At the top of the ticket, U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz entered the race with significant baggage. The only thing many voters knew of him was his celebrity status as television’s Dr. Oz. Still, he secured Trump’s endorsement and eked out a Republican primary election win by 0.07 percentage points over Dave McCormick.
Then, Oz proceeded to disappear from Pennsylvania’s airwaves for two months, allowing his Democratic opponent, John Fetterman, to define him to general election voters as a wealthy, out-of-state carpetbagger who got rich selling snake oil.
By the time voters began to learn the truth about John Fetterman – that his working-class image obscured a silver-spoon background and that his May stroke was more severe than he let on – Oz was still an out-of-state celebrity doctor endorsed by Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, Trump’s endorsement came with negligible financial help, leaving his flawed candidate to lose by more than four percentage points in a state Trump himself lost by less than half that margin.
In the governor’s race, the scenario was even worse, and Democrat Josh Shapiro’s double-digit win over Doug Mastriano was not surprising.
As early as December of last year and continuing throughout the primary, I was one of many voices expressing concerns about Mastriano’s ability to take on Shapiro (then the presumptive Democratic nominee) and win. In particular, I doubted Mastriano’s ability to appeal to independent and swing voters – an essential voting bloc in a state with more registered Democrats than Republicans.
Recognizing Mastriano’s weaknesses as a candidate, Shapiro’s campaign became Mastriano’s largest donor, spending millions to help him win the Republican nomination in a crowded, nine-candidate field. Shapiro knew that if Mastriano became the GOP nominee, his own chances of winning would increase exponentially. Think of it as the Harlem Globetrotters picking the Washington Generals to play a game. The outcome is a foregone conclusion.
Our concerns played out, as Mastriano made little to no effort to reach beyond his base to connect with key swing voters. He also refused to talk to media beyond ultra-conservative outlets, rejecting the opportunity to connect with the Pennsylvanians he needed to persuade.
It’s little wonder, then, that Mastriano not only lost, but lost big – 56% to 42% – underperforming both Oz this year and Trump in 2020.
These top-of-the-ticket GOP losses rippled to down-ballot Republicans. Heading into this election, Republicans already faced headwinds due to the fact that Democrats controlled the redistricting process and gerrymandered state maps to benefit their party. While Republicans maintained control of the state Senate, Democrats retook control of the House, albeit by a slim majority.
Had Mastriano and Oz performed better at the top of the ticket, Republicans in these tight down-ballot races would be celebrating victory rather than waiting for the outcomes of their races.
If this election has a silver lining for the GOP in Pennsylvania and nationwide, it’s that Trump himself may have also been swept away by the red riptide that grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory and handed it to the Democrats. Trump may have dragged Republicans down so far that they can only go up from here – but only if they make their break with him and chart a new course.
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Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, an independent, non-partisan, 501(c)(6) membership organization dedicated to improving the economic environment and educational opportunities in Pennsylvania.