In one of the most closely watched campaigns in America, Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro recorded one of the most impressive victories of the entire 2022 midterm cycle.
The Capital-Star set out to examine just how he did it and what this all means for the future of Pennsylvania politics. While last year’s Gubernatorial contest was thoroughly covered at the time, I feel that the most comprehensive review can only be done in retrospect.
So let’s take just such a reflective view of this race, from the very beginnings of the campaign right down to the final precinct-level results, and see what we find.
In 2022, Democrat Shapiro, a onetime Montgomery County commissioner, broke through to a national audience, but for the better part of a decade and a half he’s been one of his party’s brightest rising stars.
From his earliest days in Harrisburg as a member of the state House, Shapiro was an influential dealmaker, and his early support of former President Barack Obama earned him a strong ally. Such loyalty paid off in November 2016 when, as the Democratic Party looked for young leaders in the wake of Trump’s shocking victory, Obama chose state Attorney General-Elect Josh Shapiro to introduce him during the party’s first post-election conference call.
Shapiro also got the chance to prove himself with two impressive statewide attorney general campaigns in 2016 and 2020. While sharing a ballot with presidential, state treasurer and auditor general candidates (plus a U.S. Senate race in 2016), both times Shapiro scored a higher share of the vote – 51.39% and 50.85% respectively – than any other statewide nominee on the ballot.
As a result of all this, Shapiro was able to completely clear the field for the Democratic Primary in the 2022 Gubernatorial race, with no other candidates even making the ballot. Given Shapiro’s head start, and his history of building statewide majority coalitions, it would’ve taken a terrific Republican nominee to actually defeat him.
Mastriano, of Franklin County, was not that kind of Republican nominee. After three decades of service in the Army, Mastriano first jumped into politics by running for Congress in 2018, only to finish 4th in a crowded GOP primary. His fortunes turned, however, when a local state Senate seat opened up in 2019. A party conference chose him as the GOP nominee and he subsequently won the overwhelmingly red district in a special election.
The year 2020 would prove to be a pivotal year for Mastriano. During the early COVID lockdowns, Mastriano cultivated a passionate following of Christian nationalists through his Facebook live streams. By November, Mastriano became a leading PA voice in Donald Trump’s election denial movement, beginning with a protest outside the Capitol in Harrisburg on the Saturday after the election. He even went on to host a “hearing” with Rudy Giuliani, that was actually just an event held in a Gettysburg hotel.
Mastriano not only went to Trump’s Jan. 6, 2021 rally himself, he also spent $3,000 of campaign money to charter buses to D.C. Videos from that day show Mastriano and his wife strolling on the Capitol grounds as part of the mob, contradicting his later claim that he never breached police lines.
GOP Primary and Summer Campaign
All of those activities paid off for Mastriano in the Republican primary, as he was able to outflank former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta as the most MAGA candidate in the field. That was no small feat either, as Barletta was one of Trump’s earliest supporters and Trump enthusiastically supported Barletta’s unsuccessful 2018 Senate candidacy.
Mastriano managed to win that crowded primary with 43.81% of the vote and, although it’s pretty much forgotten now, came into the general election campaign fairly strong. As while Shapiro was still leading in the polls after the primaries, his advantage was usually in the single digits and some began to openly wonder whether Mastriano could pull-off a Trump-like upset.
In fact, there was a moment when U.S. Senate Democratic nominee, then-Lt. Gov. John Fetterman was running ahead of Shapiro, suggesting that Shapiro might need Fetterman to help carry him over the finish line in November.
Yet, all the while, there remained a vital difference between Mastriano and Trump that never got as much attention as it should have; while Trump possesses a strong grassroots army, Mastriano has nowhere near that same support. Mastriano’s fundraising numbers were ultimately disappointing, especially compared to the massive warchest Shapiro was able to build up.
A major turning point in the race then came in July, when FEC reports revealed that Mastriano had paid a $5,000 consulting fee to the founder of an anti-semitic website. This revelation was a catastrophe for the GOP nominee – Pennsylvania has the 5th highest share of Jewish residents in the U.S. – and further underscored his belief in various conspiracy theories, including Qanon.
Mastriano’s association with a virulent anti-semite, as well as the numerous controversial statements and stances Mastriano made over the years, allowed Shapiro to use his financial advantage to define the GOP nominee through an avalanche of negative TV ads. Moreover, after the Supreme Court overturned Roe, abortion became a particularly potent issue as Shapiro pledged to veto any ban passed by the GOP state legislature. All the while, Mastriano was inexplicably absent from the airwaves.
Conventional wisdom holds that the front-runner in a campaign should want as little exposure as possible, so as not to risk said front-runner status. It’s tough to convey just how thoroughly the Shapiro team rejected this truism. Whether it was cable news hits, local news affiliates, even public TV channels, Shapiro went everywhere he possibly could in 2022.
Nor is it easy to explain the extent to which the Mastriano campaign employed a thoroughly diametrical approach. They employed a media blackout that applied to national news outlets, statewide outlets and even the various local TV affiliate news stations. Local militia members served as security at events and memorably blocked reporters from asking questions or even attending.
All the while, Mastriano only granted interviews to conservative media organizations such as Newsmax and OAN. On the other hand, Fox News rarely seemed interested in Mastriano, granting him far fewer appearances than they gave to Senate Republican nominee Mehmet Oz.
Speaking of Oz, the Senate hopeful clearly was in no mood to campaign alongside his ticketmate. The two finally met at an FOP event in early August, with Mastriano posting a few photos of them together to his Twitter page. That would notably be the last time the pair were seen together, as Oz pointedly refused to share the stage with Mastriano at two Trump rallies and a Fox News town hall. By the end, Mastriano was practically trolling Oz for avoiding him.
Of course, it’s hard to blame Oz for not wanting to be associated with a campaign that didn’t even bother to start actually airing ads until October.
Conversely, as Mastriano retreated further into his own bubble, Josh Shapiro was finally breaking out as a national star. He stole the show at a massive rally in Philadelphia alongside now-President Joe Biden, Barack Obama and John Fetterman, winning the most plaudits from pundits for his speech. On Election Day, Shapiro was plainly the top draw on his ticket, whereas Mastriano was the biggest drag on his.
The Election Results
In his home region of southeastern Pennsylvania, Shapiro put together a performance for the ages, winning both traditional, working-class areas like Lower Bucks, South Delco, and Northeast Philly, as well as white-collar sections like Eastern Chester and Central Bucks.
Four years ago, former Gov. Tom Wolf carried Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties by a combined 334,410 vote margin. Way back in 2006, when Philadelphia’s own Ed Rendell won in a landslide Democratic wave year, he carried the collar counties by 374,243. Yet Shapiro was able to set a new high-water mark, posting a margin of 388,273. That’s also over 134,000 votes higher than the margin Fetterman was able to put up one position lower on the ballot.
This is only the latest chapter in a long-term Democratic trend in the Philly suburbs, which first began in the 1990s and exploded after the 2018 midterms. In future statewide races, I’ll be watching to see if Democrats start to hit their ceiling here or whether the party can still squeeze even more votes out of this populous corner of Pennsylvania.
Luzerne might very well be Trump’s favorite county in Pennsylvania. After twice supporting Barack Obama, it swung about 25 points in 2016 to Trump and stayed red in 2020. Therefore, it would’ve been understandable if the Shapiro campaign wrote it off. Instead, the Democrat chose to contest Luzerne – and as you can see – did well enough in Wilkes-Barre and the surrounding area to actually narrowly carry the county.
Shapiro also put together an impressive performance in Lackawanna County, home to Joe Biden’s birthplace of Scranton. In fact, the Gubernatorial candidate far outpaced the hometown kid, as President Joe Biden got 53.71% against Trump in 2020 while Shapiro secured 61.28% last year. Biden will be aiming to split the difference between these two totals next year, a feat Fetterman already managed to pull off by winning 56.77% against Oz.
Lancaster is historically one of the strongest Republican counties in the commonwealth: the list of post-war Democrats who’ve won Lancaster is incredibly small, confined to the landslide victories of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 and Gov. Bob Casey Sr. in 1990. Shapiro fell just 3,807 votes short of joining that list, performing extraordinarily well in an area where Democrats continue to be on an upward trend. As for the impetus behind this shift, I’ve theorized that perhaps Donald Trump-branded MAGA politics are a poor match for the local Amish community.
Really, though, this entire region is trending towards Democrats. Take Cumberland County, another of the four Trump 2020 counties that Shapiro flipped. Shapiro did this by winning over areas Trump carried two years ago like Hampden, Lower Allen, Upper Allen and Silver Spring.
All these Shapiro numbers are particularly impressive given that this is ostensibly Mastriano’s home region. The State Senator represents the heavily Republican neighboring counties of Adams and Franklin. Nevertheless, Mastriano couldn’t extend any advantage to the rest of the region, and even in those two counties Shapiro finished only about half a point worse than Wolf did in 2018.
In the last few presidential elections Erie was a critical swing county, with Trump winning it in 2016 by 1.58% while Biden took it by just 1.03% in 2020. When it comes to Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial and U.S. Senate contests, however, it still tends to be a reliably blue county. Still, Shapiro was able to run well ahead of Fetterman here – 59.74% to 53.35% – a notable result given the Fetterman’swell-publicized love for the lakeside county. Shapiro accomplished this by winning over areas along the lake like Fairview and Girard.
In the last few Presidential elections Erie was a critical swing county, with Trump winning it in 2016 by 1.58% while Biden took it by just 1.03% in 2020. When it comes to PA’s Gubernatorial and Senate contests, however, it still tends to be a reliably blue county. Still, Shapiro was able to run well ahead of Fetterman here – 59.74% to 53.35% – a notable result given the ex-Lt. Governor’s well-publicized love for the lakeside county. Shapiro accomplished this by winning over areas along the lake like Fairview and Girard.
The Lehigh Valley:
The Lehigh Valley is home to Berks County, yet another Trump-Shapiro county. Shapiro performed strong enough in Reading, as well as some of its surrounding suburbs such as Cumru, Exeter, Muhlenberg and Wyomissing, to carry the entire county. Unlike the neighboring SEPA counties, however, Shapiro fell behind Wolf’s pace. Take the aforementioned example of Shapiro’s margin exceeding Wolf’s 2018 margin in Philly’s collar counties by nearly 54,000. Well, Shapiro’s combined advantage in Berks, Lehigh and Northampton was 50,436 votes, while Wolf’s edge in 2018 was 56,779 votes.
At the same time, Fetterman ran particularly well in cities like Allentown, Bethlehem and Reading, in several precincts running very close to or even ahead of Shapiro. These precincts tended to be heavily Hispanic, suggesting that either Fetterman overperformed with these voters or Shapiro underperformed. I lean towards the former explanation as it’s quite possible Fetterman’s Brazilian-born wife Gisele, who picked up some of her husband’s campaigning duties after his stroke, gave the now-senator a bit of a bump. Exit polls of these contests also found Shapiro with more Hispanic support statewide, further evidence that this was a localized phenomenon.
Any possible path to victory for Mastriano had to start with emulating Trump’s extraordinary performance in the southwest, where ancestral Appalachian Democrats have flocked to the Republican Party in droves. Despite Mastriano’s strong MAGA credentials, however, he could not put up anywhere near the numbers here that he needed to.
Instead the Democratic nominee held up comparatively well throughout the area; winning over Beaver County, the fourth such Trump-Shapiro county, and securing a higher share of the vote in Allegheny County than Wolf did four years ago. Shapiro also kept a nearly identical pace with Wolf in the populous neighboring counties of Washington and Westmoreland. Conversely, Mastriano did manage to improve on Scott Wagner’s 2018 numbers in the less populated border counties of Fayette and Greene.
Unfortunately for Mastriano, this was an exception and not the norm.
Conclusions and Looking Ahead
So is the lesson of this race that a perfect campaign will easily defeat a putrid one every time? Well, sort of. If you have one candidate willing to go anywhere to earn votes, and another content to rely only on his base voters, then you’re gonna get the result we got in this race.
Does this mark the end of Doug Mastriano? After all, we haven’t heard from Scott Wagner since Tom Wolf dispatched him in 2018. Not only is Mastriano still in the state Senate, though, but he’s heavily hinting at another statewide run for U.S. Senate in 2024. Mastriano’s alt-right platform, while disastrous for a general election, still gives him a leg up in another primary campaign.
According to a March PPP poll, he’s already leading 2022 Senate candidate Dave McCormick in a possible 2024 primary match-up.
Meanwhile, Shapiro’s landslide gubernatorial victory put him on the shortlist national pundits keep of future Presidential prospects, with the new governor already being the subject of several ‘First Jewish President?’-style profiles.
Of course, oceans of ink (both literal and virtual) have been spilled over the centuries on long-forgotten pols who were once considered presidential timber. Shapiro’s young, talented, and in a high-profile position, but it takes a lot of luck to get to the White House.
If history has taught us anything, it’s that we just can’t be too sure about anything relating to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Taking a risk and looking ahead, though, Shapiro definitely starts off as a heavy favorite to win re-election in 2026. Historically only one incumbent Pennsylvania governor, Republican Tom Corbett in 2014, has ever been defeated while seeking re-election. We also can be sure that Shapiro and his team are already preparing for 2026, so at the very least he’ll have a huge head start on his journey towards a second term.
Finally, this Shapiro victory shows us the ceiling of what a Democrat can do in Pennsylvania ahead of the 2024 presidential race.
Now, it’s incredibly unlikely Joe Biden can secure anything close to Shapiro’s 56.5% share of the vote (you have to go back to Nixon’s 1972 landslide to find a presidential candidate who hit that mark in Pennsylvania).
What Shapiro did show, however, is that it is possible for a Democratic nominee to win back some of those traditionally Democratic blue-collar voters while also adding white-collar voters to their coalition.
The right candidate, and (just as importantly) the right opponent, will create such an opportunity to repeat these 2022 results in 2024.