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HARRISBURG — After Jake Corman was elected by his colleagues in January to the top position in the Pennsylvania Senate, he recalled stepping inside the chamber when he was 12 years old to watch his father sworn in as a state senator.

“In a way, I’ve been part of this institution of the Senate for over 40 years,” Corman told lawmakers.

For months, the Centre County Republican walked a fine line as the movement to discredit the 2020 election results won support from some of his pro-Trump colleagues. No, there was no evidence of widespread voter fraud, he said in November. But, he wrote in a January letter to Congress, there were “inconsistencies” that needed to be investigated.

As recently as June, he assured colleagues he was focused squarely on the future: “We don’t need to relitigate 2020.”

That all came crashing down last week, as Corman the institutionalist made common cause with conspiracy theorists and MAGA diehards.

He committed to conducting a “full forensic investigation” of the election — an idea fueled by baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and modeled off the widely criticized partisan review in Arizona.

Now, Corman will have to straddle the politically tenuous process of carrying out a complicated — and likely very expensive — audit that many senators in his Republican caucus do not fully support. And he must do so without the backing of the one Republican senator and uber-Trump supporter, Doug Mastriano of Franklin County, who has become the face of the election denial movement in Pennsylvania.

In a rare show of power, Corman last week unceremoniously stripped Mastriano of his leadership role in carrying out the review, tapping another conservative senator to replace him.

The power move almost immediately called into question Corman’s reasoning and motives: What caused the rift? Was it a legitimate disagreement over process or a bald-faced move to politically kneecap Mastriano, who has a close relationship with Trump and who, over the past year, has amassed a vocal and forceful following of the former president’s supporters not just in Pennsylvania, but across the country?

How Corman walks this political tightrope will be the first real test of his leadership. It could also affect not just his reelection next year, but any potential hopes for higher office.

“Mastriano’s the one guy who’s been fighting from the beginning. Sen. Corman says that we will have a full forensic audit of the 2020 election, and we’re taking him at his word,” said C. Arnold McClure, chairman of the local GOP in Huntingdon County, part of which is in Corman’s district.

“What will this all mean down the road? Sen. Corman’s longevity in office is endangered. I expect Mastriano to stay around for a while.”

Jason Thompson, a spokesperson for Corman, said the senator wasn’t available for an interview. Thompson did not respond to emailed questions.

Under new ownership

Interviews with more than a half-dozen Pennsylvania Republican lawmakers, officials, and party strategists suggest two major factors led to Corman’s decision. He’s up for reelection next year and was facing growing pressure in his district to pursue a review. And he saw an opening to resolve a headache that’s been gnawing at the Senate GOP caucus for months: how to deal with Mastriano, a likely gubernatorial candidate who’s been whipping up anger among grassroots Republicans toward the Harrisburg establishment.

But while some moderate Republicans were happy to see Mastriano “put in his place,” as one operative put it, they don’t want to be associated with a circus-like atmosphere that took hold in Arizona this year. For a while, the amateur auditors there were examining ballots under ultraviolet light for watermarks — which QAnon adherents believed would help prove the election was stolen. There were no watermarks.

“By taking the audit from Mastriano, Jake Corman has managed to separate the message from the messenger,” said Republican political consultant Dennis Roddy. “While it neutralizes Mastriano, it leaves Corman owning the message and now it’s up to him to figure out how to frame it.”

Early reviews haven’t been great, as some of Trump’s most vocal supporters have made clear they do not accept Corman as one of their own.

“This is an outrage,” Steve Bannon, the former Trump White House strategist, fumed on his podcast Friday after Corman ousted Mastriano. “Corman’s got no place to hide.”

Those in Trump’s orbit who still doubt Corman’s MAGA bona fides have pointed to his establishment background and close ties to lobbyists.

First elected in 1998, Corman represents the 34th Senate District in central Pennsylvania. It spans Centre, Mifflin, and Juniata Counties, and part of Huntingdon County. It’s the same seat his father, Doyle Corman, held for 21 years.

Corman has been a member of the Senate GOP leadership team for more than a decade, including as majority leader from 2015 through last year. He’s considered a moderate Republican and has cemented a reputation as a political pragmatist unafraid to speak his mind.

For months, stretching back to last year, he largely kept himself at arm’s length from Trump’s baseless election fraud claims and the Pennsylvania politicians who promoted them.

When Rudy Giuliani traveled to Gettysburg for a Mastriano-led hearing in late November to air election grievances, Corman was absent and dispatched a deputy to monitor it.

When Mastriano wanted the legislature to send a pro-Trump slate to the Electoral College, GOP leaders made clear that wasn’t legal. Still, Corman eventually sent a letter urging Congress to delay certification of the results, shortly before a violent pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

And instead of pursuing an “audit” like the Arizona Senate, Corman in December formed a bipartisan committee to review Pennsylvania’s election system. It held hearings, heard testimony from experts, and produced a report recommending changes to state law.

“We need to figure out moving forward, how do we set something in place that everyone has confidence in,” he said in the Senate on June 14, the same day he told them there was no need to relitigate the election.

That deliberate process did not appear to satisfy Republican activists.

“A lot of us felt it came up a little short, information-wise and so on,” said Jim Smith, chairman of the Mifflin County GOP. “That’s why we wanted the full forensic audit, to fill in the gaps that were left from that investigation.”

Trump himself chimed in, releasing a statement in June slamming Corman, saying among other things: “Why is State Senator Jake Corman of Pennsylvania fighting so hard that there not be a Forensic Audit of the 2020 Presidential Election Scam? Corman is fighting as though he were a Radical Left Democrat.”

For his part, Mastriano in July sent letters to three counties, including Philadelphia, demanding virtually all election-related equipment and materials, under threat of subpoena. They refused to comply, and Mastriano planned to convene a committee he chaired to vote on subpoenas.

That never happened, and Mastriano last week blamed Corman. The Senate leader fired back, accusing Mastriano of “grandstanding” and installing Sen. Cris Dush (R., Jefferson), another conservative firebrand, as the new leader of the review.

After the storm that ensued, however, Corman cemented his transformation, favoring statements questioning the integrity of President Joe Biden’s win. He told a pro-Trump interviewer on Monday that he lacked faith in the 2020 election results and pledged to “get to the bottom” of things.

And he lent legitimacy to baseless fraud claims without explicitly endorsing them: “We need to get the voter rolls, we need to get the ballots — things of that nature — so we can match them up to see: who voted, where were they living, were they alive?”

Basic facts about how the review will work remain unclear, including how it would be funded, who would conduct it, and how and where equipment and ballots would be stored.

Pennsylvania counties already conducted audits prior to certification of the results, and most of them participated in a “risk-limiting” audit this year based on randomly selected ballots across the state.

Smith, the Mifflin GOP chairman, said the “initial shock” over Corman’s ouster of Mastriano has “kind of subsided now” — although internally within the Republican caucus, even some of Corman’s staunchest supporters recoiled at the severity of his punishment of Mastriano.

“I think some people are still upset with him,” Smith said. “And some — as long as the audit moves forward — they’re willing to stand by and see what comes out of it.”

McClure, the Huntingdon County GOP chairman, said frustration with the Senate leader has been growing for some time. “People up here are furious with Act 77, and they blame Corman for it,” he said, referring to the 2019 state law that expanded mail voting.

McClure noted that the region once brought down another Senate president pro tempore: Robert Jubelirer, of Blair County, in the 2006 primary. That upset followed backlash to big pay raises in the legislature.

“He was the most powerful elected Republican in Pennsylvania. And he was ousted. So there is a precedent,” McClure said. “The voters will ultimately decide how this all goes down.”

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