HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A hard-right Pennsylvania state lawmaker said Thursday night that he will not challenge Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, leaving the GOP field wide open as Republican Party officials try to recruit a strong candidate in the moderate battleground state to help capture a Senate majority in 2024.
Doug Mastriano, who was endorsed by former President Donald Trump in last year’s race for governor but lost in a landslide, said in a livestreamed appearance with his wife that he will not run for Senate “at this moment the way things currently are.”
Former hedge fund CEO David McCormick is the favorite of party leaders and has drawn pledges of financial support from top Republican officials — should he decide to run.
McCormick, however, is facing a complicated decision, with Trump seeking the party's nomination for president. A Mastriano candidacy could have further complicated McCormick's path, and his announcement allowed Republican Party officials, for a night, to breathe a sigh of relief — or, as one quipped, "pop Champagne."
A year ago, the party weathered a bruising, seven-way primary for Pennsylvania's open U.S. Senate seat. It cost upwards of $85 million, launched months of TV attack ads and inflicted lasting damage on the eventual nominee, heart surgeon-turned-TV celebrity Dr. Mehmet Oz.
A three-week recount in the primary contest left McCormick behind Oz by fewer than 1,000 votes.
Mastriano's decision gives the Pennsylvania GOP hope of avoiding another divisive and expensive primary like the one in 2022, which led to a rough general election that featured losses in races for governor and Senate.
“It gives us as a party the chance to coalesce behind a candidate,” said Sam DeMarco, a McCormick ally and chair of the Allegheny County GOP. “Hopefully that would be Dave McCormick.”
It also could give an eventual GOP nominee the opportunity to “define yourself on your own terms instead of entering a general campaign with attacks against you and your character playing across the television screens in Pennsylvania statewide," DeMarco said.
Mastriano, a state senator, did not voice explicit support for McCormick or any other candidate, but said he expected that an eventual GOP nominee would live up to their campaign pledges.
For Republicans, Pennsylvania is a top target in their quest to recapture the Senate majority, while Democrats face a difficult Senate map in 2024.
Of 34 seats up for election, Democrats must defend incumbents in red states — Montana, Ohio and West Virginia — and multiple swing states, including Pennsylvania, if they are to hold their 51-seat majority.
The prospect of a Mastriano victory in a primary had prompted handwringing among some Republicans.
Mastriano had spent the last few months saying he could win a Senate primary “hands down” and blaming the party establishment for his 15-point loss in November's election for governor.
But many Republican officials say Mastriano's subpar political skills, inability to raise money and extreme positions on abortion — among other issues — would guarantee a Casey victory in a state that has long embraced more moderate voices.
Republican hopes for victory may rest on McCormick.
McCormick has promises of support from party brass, including a super PAC linked to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
McCormick also has deep pockets and connections across spheres of politics, business and government from which to draw endorsements and campaign contributions — none of which were enough to prevail against Oz, the Trump-backed candidate who went on to lose the general election to Democrat John Fetterman.
If he runs, McCormick may have to share a ticket with Trump, who castigated McCormick in last year's primary and continues to tell the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
In a book he published in March, McCormick told of an exchange with Trump in which the former president told him that, to win last year's Senate primary, McCormick would need to say the 2020 election was stolen.
"I made it clear to him that I couldn't do that. Three days later, Trump endorsed Mehmet Oz," McCormick wrote.
Trump went on to campaign against McCormick, deriding him at one point as the “candidate of special interests and globalists and the Washington establishment.”
McCormick lost to Oz by fewer than 1,000 votes.
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter: http://twitter.com/timelywriter