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Can Doug Mastriano win in a purple state while staying in the right-wing bubble?

Let’s begin with Grant Clarkson.

Clarkson was at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He stood near one of the doors to the building as rioters broke inside. When rioters grabbed media equipment and smashed it, Clarkson appeared to be watching and smiling.

A little over a year later, Clarkson was again involved in politics. Now an aide to the primary campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, Clarkson was filmed blocking media from entering a campaign event.

That incident gained national media attention but made no apparent dent in Mastriano’s political support. After all, Mastriano himself had been on Capitol Hill that day, though (as he has pointed out repeatedly) not inside. Mastriano went on to win the primary by 23 points. His decision to nestle into the right-wing universe and keep mainstream reporters at a distance paid off — or, at least, didn’t hurt him.

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It’s not uncommon that candidates will work to appeal to their party’s poles as they try to win a primary. Often, they then tack back to the middle. But when Mastriano won his primary in May, he made clear that very night that he’d be doing no such thing. His acceptance speech was a mélange of culture-war rhetoric and talking points that could have been pulled from a Tucker Carlson monologue. Not only was he going to govern as a hard-right conservative, he assured any observers, but it became clear that he was going to continue to run as one.

This was what Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) had planned to do, too. In 2015, as he tried to stand out in a crowded field of Republican presidential candidates, Cruz insisted the path to winning the presidency in 2016 was to energize conservative voters who had felt ignored or taken for granted by the nominations of John McCain and Mitt Romney. Get those conservatives excited about a candidate, he figured, and you increase your vote total even as more-moderate Republicans stuck with the party line.

He was largely right. It just wasn’t him who the voters found exciting.

From the moment he announced his candidacy that same year, Donald Trump ran a campaign almost entirely centered on appealing to and activating right-wing voters. In 2016, that was enough to squeak past Hillary Clinton in three decisive states and get to the White House.

But this isn’t really what Mastriano is doing. This week, the Philadelphia Inquirer documented the extent to which Mastriano isn’t simply focusing on the political right but on how he is doing so to the exclusion of everyone else.

“As he tours the Commonwealth,” reporters William Bender and Chris Brennan write, “Mastriano has essentially walled himself off from the general public, traveling within a bubble of security guards and jittery aides who aim to not only keep him safe, but ensure he only comes into contact with true believers.”

He continues to isolate himself from the scrutiny of mainstream news outlets, as well. Even conservative outlets, like the Washington Examiner, report getting the cold shoulder.

“[B]ecause I had not written anything nice about him,” the Examiner’s Selena Zito said the campaign told her, “I would not be granted an interview until I wrote something that was. That is not how journalism works.”

Mastriano also won’t debate his opponent in a traditional format. On Friday, he offered to debate the Democratic nominee, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, at a time and a place of his own choosing — and with right-wing activist (and former Trump administration official) Mercedes Schlapp as moderator.

The question then becomes: can it work? Can Mastriano float into the governor’s residence riding the right-wing media bubble?

It’s clear that Trump’s 2016 effort offers an imperfect comparison. For one thing, he lost on the metric that Mastriano needs: actual vote totals. For another, Trump benefited from two things that Mastriano likely won’t have at his disposal: an unpopular opponent and — relatedly — moderate voters giving him the benefit of the doubt.

In July, a Fox News poll showed Mastriano down by 10 points against Democrat Josh Shapiro. Moderates preferred Shapiro by more than three times that margin. Shapiro led Mastriano among independents by more than a 2 to 1 margin. More than half of Pennsylvanians viewed Shapiro positively. Less than 40 percent said the same of Mastriano.

That’s one poll. But if Mastriano is only speaking to loyalists and through supportive media outlets, how does he shift the views of swing voters? At this moment, his campaign has no money slotted for television ads. Can he win by only getting right-wing Republicans to the polls?

Consider how Trump did in Pennsylvania two years ago. That was an election with enormous turnout, almost certainly more turnout than the state will see in November. Exit polls suggest that only about 3 in 5 votes cast for Trump were from self-identified conservatives. More than a third was from moderates. Trump ran hard on appealing to his base, but he also made a broader pitch to state residents and peeled moderates away from Biden. It was nearly enough to win — but not quite.

Even if Mastriano gets all of those conservative Trump voters to turn out and vote for him, that’s about 2 million votes. That’s what Republican gubernatorial nominee Scott Wagner got in 2018 on his way to being trounced by 17 points. That was a cycle that was far more pro-Democrat than this one is expected to be, but: still.

There’s another challenge with Mastriano’s approach. With each day that passes in which he focuses solely on his existing supporters, his opponents get another 24 hours in which to define him for voters. Even if Mastriano suddenly appears on “The Today Show” on Nov. 1 and runs hourly soft-focus ads in the last week of voting, there have been months of negative stories that are already baked in. He’s ceding his opponents the ability to define his candidacy.

If the Trump victory in 2016 taught me anything, it’s that it’s foolish to discount any possible electoral outcome. But Mastriano trails significantly in poll after poll and seems to be relying on the idea that he can run the Trump playbook — pour all of your energy into the base — better than Trump did.

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