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Pennsylvania’s Crowded Field of Republican Gubernatorial Candidates

While most of the men have taken stands on cultural issues that reflect national GOP platforms, such as guns and abortion, there are issues they back that are distinct to the Keystone State.

Pennsylvania state Senator Doug Mastriano is a front-runner in the Republican primary for governor.
(Paul Weaver/Zuma Press/TNS)
In 2022, Pennsylvania is again at the center of American politics. Its Senate race is slated to be the most expensive in the country — and one of the only states where Democrats can seriously hope to flip a seat — with high-profile contestants like John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz attracting intense media attention.

But the stakes in the gubernatorial contest are almost certainly higher. After eight years of Democrat Tom Wolf, a crowded field of Republicans are eager to take the reins. With the party likely to remain in control of the Legislature, and Roe v. Wade on the chopping block, this election will have a far more tangible effect on the lives of Pennsylvanians.

What will today’s Republican Party do with a win in November? It depends on which candidate comes out on top, although the policy differences between them are not visibly vast.

“None of them is offering a very different policy prescription and that speaks to the extent to which the Republican platform has been nationalized,” says Dan Hopkins, professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. “There are still important differences in how they’ll govern, what they would prioritize, who they would appoint.”

If a GOP contender wins in November, they are likely to have a total lock on government. But the results may look different from the last time Republicans took complete control of Harrisburg.

Tom Corbett was elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010 with Republican majorities in both chambers, but the policy results in Pennsylvania did not match those in, say, Scott Walker’s Wisconsin. Although he made cuts to public education, Corbett did not embrace many of the hard-line conservative positions of his 2010 wave counterparts. The GOP did not go toe-to-toe with labor unions, and the restrictions placed on abortion were much less aggressive. He nonetheless lost in 2014, an otherwise strong year for Republicans.

The Democratic refrain, going into the 2022 election, is that Pennsylvania Republicans will turn the state into another Alabama or Mississippi. Insiders say the GOP is much more aggressive and united on social issues, especially abortion, but that those expecting Scott Walker 2.0 are not reading the party correctly.

The Front-Runners

There are nine candidates currently in the gubernatorial race, but only four were able to meet the threshold for the debate.

Leading the pack is Doug Mastriano, a first-term state senator who rose to prominence by attacking COVID-19 safety protocols and unflaggingly standing behind Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election. He attended the Jan. 6 rally outside the Capitol, although claims he left the crowd before the riots began. Since then, he’s stuck to the Trump line, accused members of his own party of participating in a cover-up and demanded that Tioga, York and Philadelphia counties turn over their election equipment and voting records to him.

His crusade around the 2020 election alienated some within his own party.

“It was totally uncalled for, his accusations were unwarranted and it was obviously politically motivated because he was running for governor” said Erick Coolidge, a longtime county commissioner in Tioga, a rural and heavily Republican jurisdiction. “We were threatened, so we ended up putting additional locks on doors in the courthouse, we had law enforcement watching as we came in, locking doors at home we never locked before.”

The other front-runners who made the debate stage include:

  • Lou Barletta, former mayor of Hazleton in northeastern Pennsylvania and a congressman who made his name with fierce opposition to immigration. Although an early Trump supporter in 2016, it did little for him in 2018, when he lost a Senate race to incumbent Bob Casey by over 13 points. But he remains a star in northeastern Pennsylvania. 
  • Bill McSwain is the former top federal prosecutor for Philadelphia and enjoys the backing of powerful supporters. His law-and-order pedigree and fiscal conservatism cast him as a more traditional candidate, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t fiercely aggressive on the debate stage and social media. McSwain’s principal weakness is that Trump issued a non-endorsement, disdaining him for not backing his election lies 100 percent. 
  • Former Delaware County Councilmember Dave White is part of a more labor-friendly Republican tradition in the state’s southeast, where a moderate tendency long held sway when the GOP dominated the Philadelphia suburbs. As Democrats took much of the region in recent years, centrist positioning on social issues like abortion vanished. White talks up his support among working-class voters, enjoys the backing of many building trades unions and competes for votes with Barletta in white neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Delaware County. But he’s just as conservative as Mastriano on abortion and social issues (although notably less quick to parrot Trump’s election lies). 
  • Mastriano is seen as being to the right of the rest of the field in that he is associated with the most extremist elements of the Republican coalition. He recently spoke at a conference for QAnon sympathizers, alongside a video claiming Hitler faked his death, 9/11 was a  “false flag” attack and trumpeting the threat of a “global satanic blood cult.” 

But on specific policy questions, the field is broadly united.

“It’s possible you would see policies as extreme as any being put forward nationwide in Pennsylvania,” says Lara Putnam, a history professor at the University of Pittsburgh who studies Trump-era movements. “There are not many moderate Republican state legislators left. The Republican Party now reflects a very different geography, and a very different base.”

The Hot Button Issues: Abortion, Elections and Guns

For decades, abortion was an issue with foes and allies in both parties. That’s largely no longer the case. At a late April debate, the four front-runners agreed that they would dramatically cut back the current law, which allows abortion 24 weeks into a pregnancy.

“I am pro-life, it’s my No. 1 issue,” said Mastriano, promising to pursue a “heartbeat bill,” which would essentially ban all abortions. He wouldn’t allow exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. White agreed, saying, “I would certainly work down to no exceptions at all.” Barletta and McSwain described themselves as strongly pro-life, but said they would allow for exceptions for rape, incest and if a mother’s life was at risk.

All of the men agreed on the necessity of overturning Act 77, a bipartisan 2019 law that allowed mail-in voting and other electoral reforms. In 2020, it became the bête noire for Trump who claimed (without evidence) that mail-in voting was rigged against him. (Mail-in voting has historically not been found to favor either party, but in the 2020 election, Democrats favored it due to polarization around COVID-19 safety protocols.) Mastriano promised to go further, saying, “We're going to reset, you have to re-register [to vote], we're going to start all over again.”
Lou Barletta, a former congressman and mayor of Hazelton, has raised immigration as an issue in his bid to win the Republican nomination for Pennsylvania governor.
While that promise might run afoul of federal election law, the governor selects the secretary of state and makes other appointments and regulations important to the electoral process. Candidates also would like to enact voter identification requirements while curtailing early voting.

“Questions of election administration are front and center,” says Hopkins. “There are a wide range of ways in which a secretary of state could delay registrations, raise barriers to registering, or ultimately, to voting.”

Although the topic did not come up in debates, a Pennsylvania Republican governor will be likely to enact legislation on the hot button culture war issues, like banning so-called “critical race theory,” keeping transgender girls from playing on female sports teams, and other restrictions on transgender students. Republican leaders see such issues as winners for them, according to interviews with party insiders, and a useful means of keeping Democrats on the defensive.

The men all promised to liberalize gun laws as well. Republicans in the Legislature recently passed a law to allow Pennsylvanian residents to carry concealed firearms without a permit. Tom Wolf vetoed it, but all four candidates said they would have signed.

“The bottom line here is we've lost so many freedoms,” said Mastriano. “The motto of my campaign is John 8:36: ‘If Jesus says you're free, you're free indeed.’ It's all about personal freedom. This is what William Penn planned for.”

The Issues That Make Pennsylvania Unique

Although the details may vary, a Republican governor in 2023 is likely to deregulate energy companies and take Pennsylvania out of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap and trade system between northeastern and mid-Atlantic states. The program limits allowable carbon pollution from power plants and lowers the cap every year, requiring fossil fuel users to buy pollution permits for their emissions. This incentivizes lower carbon output and the proceeds of permit sales go to renewable energy, home weatherization and other carbon offsets.

Republicans in the Legislature have long inveighed against Pennsylvania entrance into the pact, and all the candidates would pull the state out of it. “The first thing I'm going to do is take us out of RGGI,” said Barletta. “It's ludicrous to think that we have a governor … who would literally eliminate any natural gas jobs and energy jobs we have in Pennsylvania.”
Former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, is a Republican candidate for Pennsylvania governor.
(Jose F. Moreno/TNS)
The candidates support further drilling capacity — “Drill, baby, drill,” Barletta promised — incumbent Tom Wolf hasn’t been particularly restrictive on gas companies. The challenge for the natural gas industry has been market prices, not a Democratic administration.

“For the most part, on energy issues and fracking, whatever the Republicans do is nothing much more than Democrats haven't done themselves,” says Larry Ceisler, a public affairs consultant. “The energy industry grows under Democratic administrations too. There might not be as many incentives for renewables [in 2023], but when it comes to fracking, there won’t be major change.”

Similarly in the agricultural space there is broad bipartisan consensus in favor of the industry, which receives massive subsidies and pays few taxes. Instead, action under a Republican governor would likely focus on deregulation covering a variety of industry-friendly bills the Legislature has had stymied under Wolf.

Corbett saw substantial budgetary retrenchment during his administration, with big budget cuts to education and welfare programs. That occurred in the slow recovery from the Great Recession, when state and local government budgets were brutalized. This time, thanks to huge fiscal interventions under the Trump and Biden administrations, the economy is in a very different place. But some voices in the party are still advocating for austerity.

“Democrats have led the state for 16 of the past 20 years, so spending has really outpaced what it needs to be,” says Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Republican consultant who is working for Charlie Gerow, a gubernatorial candidate who wasn’t eligible for the debate. “I think we'll see a strong emphasis on fiscal discipline.”

“There's almost no area that would really be off limits [for spending cuts],” says Nicholas. “We have the second highest corporate income tax in the country. As leaders in the business community keep saying, for many potential company relocations we don't even get considered.”

The candidates did not universally embrace gas tax cuts, with White noting that he had not made a proposal to eliminate the levy (as the moderator claimed). Instead, he said that more money needed to be spent on roads and broadband in Pennsylvania, and that permitting requirements for transportation projects should be reduced.
Dave White, from Pennsylvania's Delaware County, is a GOP candidates for governor.
(Mark Pynes |
One substantial departure from the 2010 Tea Party wave is that union busting does not appear to be on the agenda. The subject was never broached at the debate, but Republican insiders say that Trump’s success among white working-class voters — especially in states like Pennsylvania — show that pursuing right-to-work laws could be self-defeating.

Paired with the remaining alliances between building trades unions and Republicans in some parts of the state, especially the southeast, sweeping anti-organized labor bills may be unlikely. Barletta marched in Philadelphia’s Labor Day parade, for example, while White received substantial campaign contributions from the plumbers, steamfitters, sprinkler fitters, firefighters, boilermakers and electricians’ unions.

“You have some Republicans in Southeast Pennsylvania who are not as hot to trot on [right to work],” says Nicholas. “I haven't really heard anyone talking about that.”

The disinclination to attack organized labor as a whole — public-sector unions could be a different story — is the chief example of Republican gubernatorial candidates tailoring their message in a state-specific fashion that breaks with national GOP orthodoxy.

“Nationalization has proceeded to a point where these are platforms you wouldn’t be surprised to hear from in Texas,” says Hopkins. “But Pennsylvania is a different state.”

Although 2022 looks like a very bad year for Democrats, it is by no means guaranteed that the GOP will win this race. The uniformly ultra-conservative nature of their platforms could be a challenge on the margins in a general election, and many Republican leaders fear that if Mastriano wins, moderates will be alienated.

Another advantage is that the Democrats only have one candidate, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is making it through the primary with no bruising debates and without having to spend money attacking fellow partisans. Instead, he goes into the general election with a war chest orders of magnitude larger than his Republican opponents, and a track record of winning more votes than the Democratic presidential candidates in 2016 or 2020. And, again, Corbett lost in an otherwise strong Republican year.

“Every indication is that it's going to be a Republican-leaning year, so for Shapiro to win, he would need some voters who have pulled the lever for a lot of Republicans to support him,” says Hopkins. “But does Josh Shapiro stand a real chance, even if the national tides are not Democratic? Absolutely.”
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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