MALVERN, Pa. - Jackie Kulback was just one of the Pennsylvania GOP leaders who was worried in May when Doug Mastriano clinched the Republican primary for governor.
Mastriano was a MAGA state senator who worked to overturn the 2020 presidential election and Kulback thought he would struggle to win the critical battleground state in the fall. But she's feeling differently these days.
"The higher the gas prices go, the more electable Mastriano is," said the chair of the Cambria County Republican Party. "Honestly, I feel this is Mastriano's campaign to lose."
In the immediate aftermath of Pennsylvania's messy gubernatorial primary - which included an ill-fated, last-minute attempt by the GOP establishment to stop Mastriano - many Democrats and Republicans in Pennsylvania thought the race was all but over. Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee, is a first-class fundraiser with a record of winning tough statewide races. He emerged unscathed from the Democratic primary after clearing the field.
Mastriano, on the other hand, has a shoestring campaign, regularly antagonizes members of his own party, and is known for his far-right views on hot-button issues. He chartered buses to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, where he appears to have been part of a crowd that crossed barricades. He believes in no exceptions for an abortion ban. He has said that the state legislature has the power to appoint presidential electors, and as governor, he would have the power to "decertify" election machines. When Mastriano pulled out a win in the primary, many national Republicans kept their distance and, privately, assumed Shapiro would waltz to the governor's mansion.
But as the political environment has worsened for Democrats across the country, the gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania has begun to look more competitive than either party expected. Polls show Mastriano behind Shapiro by only three to four percentage points, which is within the margin of error. Though many still have doubts about Mastriano's ability to run a successful campaign, that has made Pennsylvania Republicans more optimistic - and served as a wake-up call for Democrats, particularly in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned.
"I have the feeling that the race is too close, and that there is this very vocal group that Mastriano has behind him, and that Shapiro has got a lot of work to do," said Pat Moulton, a retired nurse who attended a meet-and-greet with Shapiro in northeastern Pennsylvania last week. "As a Democrat, it's frighteningly close."
Larry Ceisler, a Pennsylvania-based public affairs consultant who is backing Shapiro, said the early polls are a blessing in disguise because they have made some Democrats realize Mastriano could win.
"Most people are in a little bubble, where they talk to one other and say, 'Boy, there's no way Doug Mastriano can beat Josh Shapiro.' Well, you know what? Those people don't get off the turnpike," he said, referring to the interstate highway that crosses Pennsylvania. "It wakes some people as to: It's a real campaign, and yes, there really are people who are for Doug Mastriano, and this is not going to be a walk in the park."
Some Pennsylvania GOP power players, suddenly feeling more positive, have privately and publicly encouraged the Republican Governors Association to take another look at Mastriano and consider helping him financially. After Mastriano's victory in the spring, the RGA released a statement suggesting that the group would stay out of the race for the time being, though it left the door open to reversing course if the contest became close.
"Pennsylvania is a pivotal state. It's going to play an enhanced role in the 2024 elections," said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist who ran against Mastriano in this year's gubernatorial primary. "For them to not be involved here would be a dereliction of duty."
Mastriano, who at times has been as critical of establishment Republicans as the Democratic Party, is making a renewed effort to appeal to the RGA's wealthy contributors. He is attending a private donors' retreat held by the organization this week in Aspen, where he is scheduled to speak on Tuesday alongside other gubernatorial candidates, a source familiar with his plans told POLITICO. (An RGA spokesperson said all Republican gubernatorial nominees were invited.)
Mastriano also went to a Pennsylvania Republican Party meeting over the weekend, where he talked about unity, according to people there. The event was closed to the press.
Though most state GOP insiders think it is unlikely in the immediate future, a cash infusion from the RGA could seriously shake up the race. Shapiro has $13.4 million in the bank, compared to Mastriano's $400,000, according to the most recent campaign finance reports. Mastriano has not run any TV commercials in the general election, while Shapiro has flooded the airwaves with attack ads calling his opponent "way too extreme" on abortion and other issues.
Asked whether the RGA will get involved in Pennsylvania's gubernatorial race, spokesperson Chris Gustafson said the group "will continue to closely monitor the race as voters learn more about Shapiro's extreme positions that would leave the commonwealth worse off."
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, the RGA co-chair, was also noncommittal about Mastriano in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday: "Nov. 8 is a long way off. So we will be looking at this map. We will be looking at the resources we have. And we don't know what September and October are going to hold."
Mastriano's campaign, which has repeatedly declined to speak with mainstream media outlets, did not provide comment for this story.
At a recent meet-and-greet of a few dozen people in northeastern Pennsylvania's Pike County, Shapiro said he understood the high stakes of the governor's race. He told the crowd that "my wife said to me earlier, with a finger poked in my chest, 'You better win.' … I feel that, I do. I feel that it's more than just, 'Hey, good luck out there.' There's an urgency when y'all stick your fingers in my chest."
In an interview, Shapiro said he has seen a difference on the campaign trail in voter enthusiasm from Democrats, especially since the Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to an abortion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization.
"What was changed, post-Dobbs, is that we went from having maybe a theoretical conversation about what it means to be pro-choice or anti-choice to one that is now very real and concrete," Shapiro said. "The people understand that the next governor is going to be the one to determine whether or not a woman can still access abortion here in Pennsylvania."
Shapiro has made abortion rights a central element of his campaign, seizing on it in TV ads and speeches. At the same time, he has prioritized efforts to win over both Republican voters and bold-faced names, some of whom want abortion to be legal. Earlier this month, Shapiro rolled out endorsements from nine current and former GOP elected and party officials. He has courted Republican donors and campaigned in red counties as well.
At the event in Pike County, which voted for former President Donald Trump in 2020 by 19 percentage points, a GOP Council member, Doug Manion, introduced Shapiro to the audience. Michael Chertoff, a former Secretary of Homeland Security under former President George W. Bush, was also in the crowd there.
"I believe he stands for the values of rule of law, our constitution, and freedom and democracy, which are the foundation of our nation," Chertoff told POLITICO.
Though some in the GOP establishment are more upbeat about Mastriano's chances than they were in the spring, others who support him still have their doubts.
Pennsylvania Republican operatives and officials complained to POLITICO that Mastriano has a bare-bones campaign, has not scheduled enough public events and often makes rookie mistakes.
"I'd like to see traditional fundraising," said Matthew Wolfe, a Pennsylvania GOP activist who attended the state party meeting over the weekend. "I'd like to see that he's hired some TV commercial consultant that I've heard of before. I'd like to see a strategy on social media other than putting what seem to me to be off-the-cuff videos that are watched primarily by people that have already made up their minds."
Wolfe added that at the meeting, though most state committee people supported Mastriano's opponents in the primary, they have come around to supporting his candidacy. "There was absolutely no evidence that I saw, nobody that I talked to that was saying, 'Geez, I can't believe we're saddled with this guy Mastriano,'" Wolfe said.
Shapiro's aides and allies express optimism, arguing that the gubernatorial race was always going to be close in this perennial swing state. They believe that Mastriano has artificially high favorability ratings, which will come down as negative ads against him mount.
One Democratic internal poll shared with POLITICO showed that Mastriano's favorable-unfavorable rating fell from 24-29 in early May to 33-46 in early July - an 8-point drop. Shapiro's rating went from 43-31 to 52-29 in the same survey.
"It doesn't worry me at all," said Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of recent polls. "People don't know [Mastriano] that well at all. Even his unfavorables among Democrats … they're like 78 percent. That's ridiculous. That will be 100 percent."