HARRISBURG — State Sen. Doug Mastriano is the first candidate for Pennsylvania governor to largely shun traditional news media, from newspapers to TV news.
The Franklin County Republican won a crowded GOP primary last month relying almost solely on social media, especially frequent video posts on Facebook Live, and appearances on selective right wing cable shows, including Fox News but also many smaller outlets appealing to the most conservative parts of the electorate.
Mastriano is facing a better known and Democratic candidate who’s been preparing for this campaign for years, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
By the day of the May 17 primary, Shapiro had amassed an $18 million campaign war chest that dwarfed the shoestring budget that powered Mastriano’s campaign.
But money clearly wasn’t the key to Mastriano’s victory. His leading opponents – such as former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and millionaire businessman Dave White – heavily outspent Mastriano. Besides Facebook and conservative TV and radio, Mastriano tirelessly traveled the state starting early last year to introduce himself to grassroots conservatives, many of whom were mobilized for the first time by Donald Trump.
“I’ve never seen a major candidate for office eschew mainstream media in lieu of social media, ever, at any level.,” said Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University who studies right-wing media.
Avoiding mainstream media in the general election is a risk, she said.
“Going social means you are relying on micro targeted ads and then spread by people who think alike,” Dagnes said.
“But that doesn’t expand the reach. It only reaches the people who like you in the first place,” she added..
It may be a play by Mastriano aimed solely at turning out the same GOP base that helped Trump carry the state in 2016 and lose narrowly in 2020.
“Maybe that’s enough, it’s about turnout,” Dagnes said. Mastriano is using social media to get “his followers and like-minded Republicans to the polls.”
Engage, don’t avoid
David LaTorre, a media consultant who worked for Corman’s unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign, said doing media interviews and taking on reporters is what the GOP nominee needs to do.
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Speaking for himself and not any campaign, LaTorre said Mastriano should look to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Trump himself – for examples of how a Republican politician can aggressively confront reporters’ questions in interviews and at news conferences.
Public confidence in the media is at low levels, LaTorre said.
“DeSantis is not popular because he eludes the media,” said LaTorre. The Floridian’s attitude is “bring it” – appearing regularly for open press conferences where he revels in attacking the press.
A pillar of Mastriano’s campaign is also “fighting against the ‘elites’ of the media,” Dagnes said. He needs to engage journalists if he wants to “keep the mainstream media as the enemy to keep the storyline going.”
This strategy means holding news conferences and doing interviews, which Mastriano has been loath to do. Surely, a former U.S. Army colonel would be adept at dressing down reporters asking questions he considers partisan, personal or opinionated.
Joseph DiSarro, chairman of the political science department at Washington & Jefferson College, said Mastriano can advance his message further by making the media “the bogeyman – larger than life.”
Another political analyst said avoiding the press is a lost opportunity.
“He (Mastriano) doesn’t show any signs of broadening his message," said G. Terry Madonna, a longtime pollster and political commentator from Lancaster County. Mastriano needs to reach beyond the base of GOP primary voters to Democrats and independents, Madonna said.
Still, Madonna agreed the midterm election environment, when the party out of power in Washington typically flexes its muscles, may be more consequential. Republicans, angry over Trump’s loss and hurting from soaring gas prices under Biden, may be more motivated to vote, he said. That could have as much or more impact than Mastriano’s limited engagement with mainstream media, he suggested.
Stick with the base
Does a USA Today/Suffolk University poll last week showing Shapiro leading by only four percentage points – putting Mastriano within the margin of error – suggest the GOP nominee may not need to broaden his media outreach?
First, LaTorre said he would want to see two or three more polls with similar results before believing the race is that close.
Even if it is, what may be reflected in the polling is the momentum Mastriano picked up by winning a crowded primary and by far more of a margin than most predicted.
Lacking a primary opponent, Shapiro “did not have to campaign,” said Berwood Yost, the polling director at Franklin & Marshall College. “He wasn’t on everybody’s TV screens the last two months. His public campaign is in its infancy.”
Many in the advertising industry see free and paid media working together, Yost said. “It’s hard to see how it would work in a general election” if Mastriano is not talking to the state’s newspapers and TV stations.
But if Mastriano is well-funded by national Republicans, he’ll be able to match Shapiro in the TV ad war, or at least avoid being drowned out altogether. As such, whether or not he talks to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Spotlight PA, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and LNP may be less important.
Mastriano could not be reached through calls or emails. During the primary campaign, he occasionally answered questions from mainstream media, including this reporter. But since his victory last month, a cell phone number he used regularly is no longer answered and doesn’t accept voicemails. And his official Senate office stresses its role is to deal with official business only, not reporters wondering how to reach the candidate.
“I don’t know how you could continue to duck the press,” said Yost. “What does that say about how you would govern?”
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