Pennsylvania: My Primary Concern



To my radio audience, I’ve been saying “I told ya so”.


For months I’ve said all eyes across the country should be on the Pennsylvania primary elections. And while I knew things would get interesting, I never envisioned the many twists and turns in the home stretch.


In the race to replace outgoing Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, who is term-limited, the state’s attorney general, Josh Shapiro, is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination. 


Among the Republican contenders, the findings of a poll released Monday by the often-canny Trafalgar group found State Senator Doug Mastriano with 28 percent support, former S.S. Rep. Lou Barletta in second at 18 percent, and Delaware county businessman Dave White at 15 percent.


The GOP regulars have been trying to combine forces to derail Mastriano, who is seen as too extreme to win in November.


But in an unusual move, Shapiro released an ad that anoints Mastriano as his likely opponent – apparently thinking that might make Shapiro’s path to victory in November easier. Here’s an excerpt:

“It’s Mastriano who wrote the heartbeat bill in Pennsylvania and he’s one of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters. He wants to end vote by mail and he led the fight to audit the 2020 election. If Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for. Is that what we want in Pennsylvania?”


Could it backfire? Maybe.


Meanwhile, in the fight for the senate seat being vacated by retiring republican Pat Toomey, the democrats have three main contenders: Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, Congressman Conor Lamb, and State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.


On the Republican side, most of the attention – and money spent – has been on businessman David McCormick and TV Doctor Mehmet Oz – the latter of whom got president trump’s endorsement.


But there’s been a late surge in the polls by an underdog. Kathy Barnette, described on her website as a “veteran, former adjunct professor of corporate finance, sought-after conference speaker, and conservative political commentator.” In the final week of the campaign, Barnette’s campaign got an endorsement and two million dollars in TV ads from the Club For Growth, a conservative Super PAC that in the Ohio Senate primary had opposed JD Vance, only to have Vance get Trump’s endorsement and win.


Barnette has put abortion at the center of her candidacy, calling herself the “by-product” of her mother being raped at 11. Despite not having 45’s endorsement, she said during a debate last month, “MAGA does not belong to President Trump.”


The most recent Trafalgar group poll has the race: Oz at 25 percent support, Barnette at 23 percent, and McCormick at 22 percent.


Regardless of who wins, there are already lessons to be learned from Pennsylvania. Last week, I tweeted:

“Among my pre-election takeaways from the upcoming pa primary: 1. This is who you get when we lack investigative journalists. 2. It shows the decreasing importance of paid-for television ads. 3. Closed primaries suck.”


Every time you read that another local newsroom has been eviscerated, realize what society loses in terms of government oversight. Your local school board, county commissioners, and yes, statewide candidates are getting too much of a free pass.


In a bygone era, all these Pennsylvania candidates would have been fully vetted by local media. Instead, there is a scramble underway to educate the public in the 11th hour, when many have already returned ballots.


On Thursday, former President Trump released this statement about Barnette.

“Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the general election against the radical left democrats. She has many things in her past which have not been properly explained or vetted, but if she is able to do so, she will have a wonderful future in the Republican Party — and I will be behind her all the way.”


There’s some real pretzel logic in that, but let me make this observation. It’s ironic that Trump and those who don’t want to see Barnette win are now speaking about her lack of vetting. They themselves are partly to blame. For having so denigrated the media, they have limited the impact of any investigative journalism that might be done about Barnette or any other candidate.


CNN’s K-File dropped a serious look at Barnette this week. It began this way:

“Surging Pennsylvania GOP senate candidate Kathy Barnette has a history of anti-muslim and anti-gay statements. In many tweets, Barnette also spread the false conspiracy theory that former President Obama is a Muslim.

In one speech uploaded to youtube in 2015, Barnette forcefully argued it was OK to discriminate against Muslims and compared rejecting Islam to “…rejecting Hitler’s or Stalin’s worldviews.” In comments on her radio show, she said accepting homosexuality would lead to the accepting of incest and pedophilia. One post she wrote called a transgender person “deformed” and “demonic.”


One of her tweets discovered was this from 2015: “Pedophilia is a cornerstone of Islam.”


Recently confronted about this by an NBC reporter, Barnette had this remarkable response – this is Joy Reid territory: “Yeah, no, I don’t think that’s me. I would never have said that.”


All this is pretty strong stuff, all documented. But where Trump derides the source as “fake news” how can he now expect his followers to believe it? Republicans who don’t want Mastriano or Barnette because they can’t win a general election can’t count on the media to do their dirty work.


Second, where up until a week ago, nearly $50 million had been spent on McCormick and Oz – as compared to 137 thousand for Barnette. TV outlets and media buyers better beware. The outcome of this race might cause reconsideration of whether you can still buy an election with TV advertising alone. Never in the history of Pennsylvania politics has so much been spent by so many for such meager results.


Third: Pennsylvania is now a textbook example of what is wrong with closed primaries. There are nine closed primary states in the nation. Notwithstanding that my tax dollars are funding Tuesday’s primary, I have no vote where I am registered as an independent. There are nearly 1.3 million people like me in Pennsylvania.


On Tuesday we have no say. We have to sit back and wait for the parties to nominate. In the Senate, that looks like Democrat John Fetterman and one of the three Republicans who’ve tried to outdo one another laying claim to the MAGA movement.


Fetterman is a Democrat in the mold of Bernie Sanders. And despite the stakes in the race, he wasn’t fully vetted for a 2013 incident in which he brandished a shotgun on an unarmed black jogger.


Moreover, as The Philadelphia Inquirer noted this week, despite his role as president of the state senate, not a single member of that body is supporting his candidacy, nor is any member of the State House.


The stronger general election candidate among the Dems is Conor Lamb, a marine veteran, a former prosecutor and a moderate member of congress, who already won in Trump territory.


But here’s the thing: just like the Republicans, the Democrats who vote in primaries are at the end of the ideological spectrum. So Lamb will probably come up short in the primary, even though he would be invincible in a general election, and Fetterman will face one of three Trump acolytes.


This means the citizens of the commonwealth are going to have a choice of a far-left or far-right candidate to represent a state that is a deep shade of purple! And that’s a shame.


Michael Smerconish

Using the perfect blend of analysis and humor, Michael Smerconish delivers engaging, thought-provoking, and balanced dialogue on today’s political arena and the long-term implications of the polarization in politics. In addition to his acclaimed work as nationally syndicated Sirius XM Radio talk show host, newspaper columnist, and New York Times best-selling author, Michael Smerconish hosts CNN’s Smerconish, which airs live on Saturday at 9:00 am ET.



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