Donald Trump’s preferred candidate in Pennsylvania’s Senate Republican primary was essentially tied with a more traditional rival, while his pick for governor notched a commanding victory Tuesday as the former president worked to expand his hold on the GOP.
Doug Mastriano was already surging in the governor’s race when Trump issued an endorsement over the weekend supporting the far-right state senator. But Mehmet Oz, the celebrity heart surgeon endorsed by Trump, was locked with former hedge fund manager David McCormick in a race that was too early to call Wednesday morning.
Pennsylvania law requires recounts when the margin between the top two candidates is 0.5 percentage points or less. With just a few hundred votes separating Oz and McCormick, the result may not be clear for several days.
Tuesday marked the busiest night of the nascent primary season, with contests also being waged in North Carolina, Kentucky, Oregon and Idaho. Both parties are choosing candidates to enter the fall general election, when control of Congress, governor’s mansions and key elections posts are up for grabs.
In the perennial battleground of Pennsylvania, Mastriano’s victory was notable for what it signaled about the direction of the GOP. With the future of abortion rights in question at the U.S. Supreme Court, Mastriano has said he supports banning the procedure from conception, with no exceptions.
He has also promoted Trump’s lies about nonexistent, widespread voter fraud costing him the 2020 election and was outside the U.S. Capitol when a mob overran it during the deadly 2021 insurrection. He’s also been subpoenaed by the House committee investigating the Capitol riot following his efforts to name a slate of alternate Electoral College electors in Trump’s favor.
If Mastriano were to win in the fall, he would shape how elections are conducted in Pennsylvania — where the governor appoints the secretary of state, who oversees how elections are run. He has pledged to take the extraordinary step of requiring voters to “re-register” to vote, a move that would almost certainly encounter legal hurdles.
Such positions could repel critical moderate voters in the general election. But speaking to his supporters on Tuesday, Mastriano denied he was an extremist.
“They like to call people who stand on the Constitution far right and extreme. I repudiate that. That is crap. That is absolutely not true,” Mastriano said, adding that it was Democrats who have “gone extreme.”
Such rhetoric was appealing to some Republican voters. In the town of Hamburg, Pennsylvania, Stacy Steinly, a 51-year-old school bus assistant, said she chose Mastriano because “he was sticking by President Trump and saying that everything was fraudulent.”
“Everything he was talking about was making sense,” said Steinly, who wore a black T-shirt that said “Biden is not my president (or anyone else’s) based on legal votes.”
Mastriano, a retired Army colonel, will face Democratic state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who was unopposed in his primary.
On primary day in Pennsylvania, Millennials and members of Gen Z are an infrequent sight at polling stations. NBCLX political editor Noah Pransky went on a hunt for young Pennsylvania primary voters, and uncovered several reasons why they are so hard to find.
Trump scored an easier victory early in the night when U.S. Rep. Ted Budd clinched the GOP nomination for Senate in North Carolina. Trump’s surprise endorsement last year lifted Budd, a little-known congressman, over better-known rivals, including a former governor. He quickly pivoted to a general election message focused on breaking Democratic control of Washington.
“Under Joe Biden, America is woke and broke,” he said at a victory rally. “We need to put the brakes on this agenda for the sake of hardworking North Carolinians.”
Budd voted against certifying of the results of the 2020 election. He will face Democratic former state supreme court justice Cheri Beasley, who is aiming to become North Carolina’s first Black senator. She declared at a victory party that “this is our moment.”
“We have the power to restore our values to our government in Washington,” she said. “In this moment, we have the power to protect our rights.”
In another of the night’s closely watched races, progressive John Fetterman easily won Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary, just days after a stroke sent him to the hospital.
The 52-year-old Fetterman is known for his hulking, 6-foot-8 stature and his tattoos that helped him build a political persona as an outsider. That, combined with his support of top progressive causes such as universal, government-funded health care, was key in his easily dispatching Democratic rival U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, a moderate in the mold of President Joe Biden.
“Fetterman’s victory shows that voters are fed up and want fighters. This should be a wake up call to the entire Democratic Party establishment to fight harder against the fascists and those who obstruct a popular agenda,” Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement.
Fetterman’s win was a positive for progressives after a series of losses in top races around the country. But Biden downplayed any coming squabbles between his party’s left flank and traditional establishment, tweeting that electing Fetterman to the Senate “would be a big step forward for Pennsylvania’s working people.”
Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, Fetterman could enter the general election campaign facing questions about his health. Following his stroke, he cast an emergency ballot from the hospital and tweeted Tuesday that he’d successfully undergone surgery to install a pacemaker. He said he was “on track for a full recovery.”
And Fetterman will likely face scrutiny over a 2013 incident when, shotgun in hand, he confronted a Black man because he suspected the man was involved in gunfire nearby. The man, Christopher Miyares, was unarmed and said in a TV interview that he had been jogging when Fetterman, who is white, pulled up in his pickup and pointed the shotgun at him. Fetterman has maintained he didn’t know Miyares’ race at the time of the pursuit, denied pointing the shotgun at him and said it wasn’t loaded.
Fetterman’s opponent in the fall wasn’t yet clear. Oz, the celebrity surgeon, and McCormick, who resigned in January as the CEO of Bridgewater Associates, one of the largest hedge funds in the world, were in an exceptionally tight race. Commentator Kathy Barnette, who had appeared to be gaining late momentum in the race, was trailing.
“We’re not gonna have a result tonight,” Oz said shortly before midnight, before vowing to Trump, “I will make you proud.”
McCormick struck a similar tone, saying mail-in ballots have yet to be counted: “We’re not going to have resolution tonight.”
Barnette, meanwhile, may have had her rise blunted by criticism from Trump. In a statement going into the election, he said, “Kathy Barnette will never be able to win the general election against the radical left Democrats.’
Elsewhere, one setback for Trump came when North Carolina Republican incumbent Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who was dogged by a series of high-profile blunders, lost to state Sen. Chuck Edwards. Trump posted this week that Cawthorn “made some foolish mistakes, which I don’t believe he’ll make again” and added, “let’s give Madison a second chance!”
Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, whose bid to unseat Gov. Brad Little in that state’s Republican primary was backed by Trump, also faltered.
Trump-endorsed candidates have won most Republican primaries around the U.S., but the former president’s record is not perfect. In addition to Tuesday’s defeats, last week saw Trump’s choice for Nebraska governor, Charles Herbster, lose to traditional GOP establishment choice Jim Pillen.
Associated Press writer Michael Rubinkam contributed from Hamburg, Pennsylvania.