Republicans eye traditional post-primary election pivots in purple states, but operatives say it won't be easy

One strategist said: "They have to broaden their message" -- if Trump lets them.

August 26, 2022, 5:02 AM

Several Republicans who were nominated as firebrands in purple states are now eyeing post-primary messaging pivots in a policy acrobatics routine that could determine the outcome of marquee races.

Politicians modulating their campaign strategy after winning their party's nomination is a tale as old as primaries themselves, and Democrats and Republicans alike are expected to adjust their approaches as the November midterms near. But strategists and experts say that for some GOP hopefuls, evolving the hardline stances they took while campaigning to their base -- on issues like abortion access or baseless fears of widespread election fraud -- could prove a more difficult feat than in the past.

Republicans seeking gubernatorial and Senate seats in swing states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and elsewhere are already indicating they'll change their tone on hot-button issues -- a swivel, according to some operatives, that is borne out of necessity in their narrowly divided states.

In Pennsylvania, state Sen. Doug Mastriano initially campaigned for the GOP nominee to be governor in part on a near-total ban on abortions -- a plank of his platform he has virtually stopped mentioning since winning the nomination.

In Arizona, Republican Senate nominee Blake Masters ran as an "anti-progressive," falsely saying that "Trump won in 2020" and advocating for a federal "personhood law" that would completely ban abortions, a procedure he dubbed "demonic."

More recently Masters has said Arizona's current law banning abortion after 15 weeks is "reasonable" -- and reportedly removed past language about more severe abortion restrictions from his website. His first general election ad also featured his wife explaining that he wants "Americans to be thriving" over inspiring music.

"If the campaigns are about the last election or Trump or abortion, then they fail because voters get to decide what the most important issues in the race are and they have. It's clear: It's the economy, it's inflation, it's [the] cost of goods and services," said one senior GOP strategist working on several midterm races, who requested anonymity to speak more candidly about the cycle.

"If they're going to be successful," this strategist said of nominees like Mastriano, Masters and others, "they're going to have to connect with voters' top concerns."

As evidenced by Mastriano and Masters, some of the candidates who ran to the right flank of the GOP to clinch their nominations have since signaled what amounts to a vibe shift, focusing more on so-called kitchen table issues and in some instances altering their stances on culture war third rails.

Mastriano, in Pennsylvania, said on Fox News last month that "there's nothing extreme about me" after reports of ties to the founder of Gab, a social media platform notorious for some of its users' extremist right-wing content.

A New York Times report last month had described Mastriano as a "point person" in his state organizing fake electors in support of former President Donald Trump's efforts to reverse the 2020 race -- and the House Jan. 6 committee said in a letter to Mastriano in February that he had "knowledge of and participated in a plan to arrange for an alternate slate of electors."

Mastriano, who publicly worked to undercut the legitimacy of the last presidential election, was also outside the Capitol during last year's riot, though he insists he didn't enter the building and has condemned the violence.

But since winning his primary -- and in the wake of the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the resulting backlash to a Kansas anti-abortion amendment -- Mastriano has virtually stopped talking about abortion and switched from talking about the 2020 election to discussing inflation and his plans to slash energy and COVID-19 regulations.

Tim Michels, the GOP gubernatorial nominee in Wisconsin, ran his primary campaign as an election skeptic, though less ardently than some other Republicans. He said that there was "certainly voter fraud" in 2020 -- but avoided addressing directly whether he would support an attempt to decertify the last presidential results.

PHOTO: Republican nominee for Arizona governor Kari Lake speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC at the Hilton Anatole on August 06, 2022 in Dallas, Texas.
Republican nominee for Arizona governor Kari Lake speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC at the Hilton Anatole on August 06, 2022 in Dallas, Texas.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

After defeating Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch in the GOP primary, Michels released a general election ad focusing on his record as a businessman and high gas prices and briefly removed language from his campaign website highlighting Trump's endorsement. And after saying at a Trump rally before the primary that his "No. 1 priority is election integrity," he declared in his primary victory speech that "jobs and the economy are going to be my No. 1 priority."

In Arizona, GOP Senate nominee Masters leaned on primary ads packed with metaphorical red meat, including a Second Amendment-themed clip stating that short-barreled rifles are "designed to kill people" and another calling San Francisco "disgusting" while walking through a homeless encampment.

More recently, though, Masters told a local newspaper that the federal government "should prohibit late-term abortion, third-trimester abortion and partial-birth abortion" but that otherwise the decisions should be left to the states.

His first general election ad, released this month, opens with his wife talking about his patriotism and highlighting concerns about gas prices and crime rates.

Race experts told ABC News that the Republican pivots are wise in states where, even in an expected red-wave year like 2022, relying solely on the party base could be a campaign's death knell.

"If they want to be successful, they have to broaden their message," said Mike DuHaime, who helped former Republican Gov. Chris Christie twice get elected in New Jersey. "Yeah, you need the Republican base to be fired up -- but you need to win over independents, and you need to win over some conservative, moderate Democrats. And you're not going to do that by carrying Trump's water about an election that happened two years ago. They need to move forward."

There is plenty of room to adapt, DuHaime said.

"I think, many, many undecided voters won't be tuning into this race until October," he said. "So, there's certainly time. But you need to make that decision."

To be sure, Democrats are also expected to face pressures of their own to turn back from their base. Republicans pointed to progressive nominees for Senate in battlegrounds like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- Lt. Govs. John Fetterman and Mandela Barnes, respectively -- as places where Democrats may have to modulate their own messaging to a more narrowly divided November electorate.

Barnes turned to the general election this month with a pledge to focus on "expanding opportunity for Wisconsin's working families and family farmers" and "rebuild the middle class."

However, strategists said, Republicans in crucial races will find themselves walking a particularly tough tightrope after espousing conspiracy theories over the 2020 race -- sometimes for an audience of one.

"If you're an election denier, you've gotten former President Trump's support because of that. You can't pivot from that," said GOP strategist Bob Heckman. "Trump has made it clear that if people try stray away from him, he'll criticize them and then you jeopardize your base. So I just think you have to stay with where you are."

Some candidates, like Arizona's GOP gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake, have expressed no interest in making the traditional post-primary changes to their campaign.

Lake made falsehoods about the 2020 race a cornerstone of her GOP nominating bid. And, according to her team, voters can expect similar rhetoric from her primary heading into November, which aides pitched as effective state advocacy.

"We have no plans to change our Arizona First message and our detailed policy positions speak for themselves," Lake spokesperson Ross Trumble said.

Still, Republican operatives and officials by and large say they think their candidates are taking some of the right steps back toward the center.

"When you talk about messaging, I believe you're gonna see Sen. Mastriano talk about … things that are so much more important to the average Pennsylvanian than the 2020 election or his personal position in regards to abortion," said Sam DeMarco, the chair of the Allegheny County GOP in Pennsylvania.

Comments like that from DeMarco, who played an active role in trying to cut Mastriano off from winning his May primary, underscore another notable development.

Cooperation between state and local Republican Parties could be crucial to winning races in key battlegrounds. And despite strong criticism from hardliners against those groups, and reluctance by some GOP officials to embrace the eventual nominees, it appears bridges weren't permanently burned. In Arizona, Gov. Doug Ducey, the chair of the Republican Governors Association who endorsed Lake's main primary rival, has since urged Republicans to coalesce behind the entire GOP slate this November.

And in Pennsylvania, officials have put past concerns about Mastriano -- and the concerted efforts opposing him -- in the rearview mirror.

"Soon after the primary was over, there was a call with all the county chairs and the state party and Sen. Mastriano, and I was very impressed with the things he said," DeMarco, the Allegheny GOP chair, told ABC News. "He talked about how many of the folks he knew on the call hadn't been initial supporters of this. And he understood that and that that was OK. But now he was the nominee, and we all need to come together."

The base spoke; the party adjusted. Whether other voters will rally around the nominees is a different question entirely.

A Fox News poll from July, for instance, showed independent voters widely favoring Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania's attorney general and Mastriano's Democratic opponent, 47-19.

"It's not just about issues -- it's not about taxes, the economy, crime, what have you. It's about certain things fundamental to our democracy and to honesty that are going to give a lot of voters pause," said veteran GOP strategist Doug Heye. "And maybe inflation is still at a bad enough number in three months that they're like, 'Well, you know, I don't like this person, but ...' Or maybe they can't get that out of their minds."

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