Column: A Pennsylvania Democrat pays to pick his GOP opponent? California’s got the playbook

The advertisement was catnip to the MAGA faithful.

“This is Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano,” said the spot that blazed across Pennsylvania’s television airwaves, touting the candidate’s staunch opposition to abortion and mail-in balloting and his whole-hog embrace of the stolen 2020 election lie.

“If Mastriano wins,” the ad declared, “it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for.”

Mastriano won.

On Tuesday, he easily captured the Republican nomination for Pennsylvania governor. In November he will face Democrat Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general — and the one who paid for the ad blitz attesting to Mastriano’s MAGA bona fides.

Shapiro, in fact, spent more on the spot than Mastriano’s entire TV budget.

Why did Shapiro pay so handsomely to promote a Republican candidate for governor? Because he figured Mastriano, a conspiracy monger who passed through breached police barricades during the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and pals around with QAnon crazies, would be the easiest candidate to beat in the general election.

Who wouldn’t like to boost their chances of winning by meddling in a way that lands a preferred opponent?

In California, supporters of Democratic Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta are attempting something similar, promoting far-right Republican Eric Early with ads on talk radio in hopes he emerges from the June 7 primary, rather than his more moderate and presumably competitive rivals.

“‘Eric Early is the most conservative candidate. He’s anti-abortion,’” said Democratic strategist Garry South, using a faux-announcer baritone to mimic the pitch for the Los Angeles attorney. “That’s not meant to hurt Eric Early among Republican primary voters. It’s mean to help him, because of how conservative they are.”

South is not a part of the pro-Bonta or Shapiro campaigns. But he’s well practiced in the art of political meddling, having workshopped the strategy 20 years ago when California’s beleaguered Gov. Gray Davis was seeking reelection and sought to smooth his path by eliminating his most feared challenger.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan was running as a business-oriented, socially tolerant representative of the centrist wing of the California Republican Party. (Back then, that was a viable thing.) A key part of Riordan’s candidacy, and his middle-of-the-road image, was his professed support for abortion rights.

Years earlier, however, while working on another campaign, South had purchased a VHS tape of a 1991 interview that Riordan gave to a Westside cable TV station. In it Riordan, a devout Catholic, expressed his support for the church’s stance on abortion. “I think it’s murder,” Riordan said.

South pulled the tape from a climate-controlled storage unit and made it the centerpiece of a $10-million ad campaign that helped turn voters on both sides of the abortion issue against Riordan. “In his own words he was taking two positions,” said South, still chortling decades later.

Riordan’s campaign entered a death spiral and he lost the GOP nomination to businessman Bill Simon Jr., a bumbling conservative whom Davis easily dispatched in November.

What Shapiro did in Pennsylvania — boosting his preferred opponent through purposeful misdirection — was somewhat different and even more cynical. Or clever, depending on your perspective.

There’s a history there as well.

In 2012, Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill was facing a tough reelection battle in Missouri. As recounted in her autobiography, she made “a $1.7-million gamble,” sinking the money into an ad campaign aimed at lifting the candidate McCaskill wished to face, Rep. Todd Aiken, past his GOP primary opponents.

The ads “made it look as though I was trying to disqualify him, though, as we know, when you call someone ‘too conservative’ in a Republican primary, that’s giving him or her a badge of honor,” McCaskill wrote. “It started to work. Our telephones were ringing off the hook with people saying, ‘Just because she’s telling me not to vote for him, I’m voting for him.’”

McCaskill won reelection in a landslide, helped greatly by an unfathomably stupid comment Aiken made about abortion and “legitimate rape” and the capacity of “the female body … to try to shut that whole thing down.”

Years later, in the 2016 California governor’s race, Gavin Newsom lumped Republican John Cox together with President Trump in TV ads aimed at conservative audiences, helping Cox glide past Newsom’s fellow Democrat, Antonio Villaraigosa, in the state’s top-two primary. Newsom crushed Cox in November.

Of course, every election is different. Shapiro and his fellow Democrats could end up regretting his strategy of elevating Mastriano.

After working in the Legislature to overturn Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in Pennsylvania, Mastriano made Trump’s false claims of election fraud a central part of his gubernatorial campaign. If elected, he would appoint Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, giving him enormous sway in 2024 over the election machinery in a major presidential battleground.

That could be disastrous, and, fortunately, Shapiro is an overwhelming favorite to win.

But in politics, as in life, there are no guarantees. There’s always the risk of miscalculation.

Once there was a gubernatorial candidate in California who was widely considered too inexperienced and extreme — on the size and role of government, racial issues, foreign policy — to ever be electable.

California’s Republican senator openly mocked him and Democrats were delighted when the candidate of their choice beat the moderate alternative and advanced to November, figuring he’d be easily defeated.

His name was Ronald Reagan.

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