Democrats have small leads over Trump supporters in key races. In the blue states, buying ads for GOP candidates who could be easier to beat looks to be paying off. But in purple states, some races appear much closer.

Democrats lifted GOP opponents in the primaries. Some of those races now look close

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Democrats made a strategic choice during some primary races for governor this year. They boosted Republican opponents they viewed as more extreme, thinking they'd be easier to beat in the general. In blue states, those Democratic candidates are now polling solidly ahead of their opponents. NPR's Laura Benshoff reports on how the strategy is playing out in the purple state of Pennsylvania.

LAURA BENSHOFF, BYLINE: This looks and sounds like a normal political TV ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: This is Republican State Senator Doug Mastriano.

BENSHOFF: It has scary music, washed-out images.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: He wants to end vote-by-mail, and he led the fight to audit the 2020 election.

BENSHOFF: But like a lot of things in Pennsylvania's race for governor this year, it's not normal. The Democratic candidate and Pennsylvania's current attorney general, Josh Shapiro, paid for this TV spot during the primaries, raising the profile of conservative election denier Doug Mastriano.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: If Mastriano wins, it's a win for what Donald Trump stands for. Is that what we want in Pennsylvania?

BENSHOFF: Shapiro's press secretary says they were just getting a jump on the general election, but Democrats in Illinois and Maryland also bought ads for far-right competitors in the primary. Those competitors are now lagging in the polls. But in the Pennsylvania primary, Mastriano didn't just win, he beat out eight other Republicans by a wide margin. The race here is closer, according to the Cook Political Report, and the candidates couldn't be running more different campaigns. Democrat Shapiro is wooing Republican voters, speaking here in a park in a GOP-leaning county.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSH SHAPIRO: We've got to put aside the red jerseys and the blue jerseys and come together as Pennsylvanians and Americans.

BENSHOFF: To broaden his base, Shapiro pitches himself as the candidate of law and order. He's also campaigning as the last line of defense for abortion rights in Pennsylvania now that Roe v. Wade has been overturned. Here's Shapiro at another rally.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHAPIRO: This legislature is poised to put a bill on the desk of the next governor to ban all abortions in Pennsylvania. He will sign that bill into law. I will veto that bill.

BENSHOFF: Mastriano, the GOP candidate is not trying to broaden his appeal but staying focused on his enthusiastic base. Here he is at an event in central Pennsylvania poking fun at being labeled as, quote, "extreme."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOUG MASTRIANO: I'm extreme on your rights and freedoms. I'm extreme on the Constitution and defending it.

BENSHOFF: Many of his talking points center on hot-button issues for right-wing voters, criticizing everything from COVID-19 vaccine mandates to transgender athletes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

D MASTRIANO: On day one, no more boys on the girls team (laughter). Can you believe some of the stuff I have to correct?

BENSHOFF: Mastriano is also a staunch supporter of former President Donald Trump. He went to the Capitol on January 6, but says he didn't go inside. In his current job in the state Senate, he's one of the people who's been pushing, so far unsuccessfully, to outlaw abortion after about six weeks. Here's his wife, Rebbie, at the same event.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REBBIE MASTRIANO: They want to say that Republicans don't believe in women's rights, but we know that's a bunch of baloney. First off, we believe, as conservatives, in a women's right to be born. That is the most important.

BENSHOFF: In the final leg of the campaign. Shapiro has some advantages. He has more than $13 million on hand, while Mastriano has less than $400,000 per the last campaign finance report. Recent polling also shows Shapiro out in front by as little as three points or as many as 11. But turnout is an X factor. Charlie Gerow is a GOP consultant and one of the candidates Mastriano beat in the primary.

CHARLIE GEROW: The Mastriano voters are marking their calendars for November 8 because they are chomping at the bit to get out and vote.

BENSHOFF: Neil Oxman, a longtime Democratic political consultant here, says factors from inflation to the stock market could sway the race.

NEIL OXMAN: If the market drops, there will be a really loud echo chamber. That will be the lead story, night after night after night on the national news.

BENSHOFF: He says that would be bad for Democrats like Shapiro.

Laura Benshoff, NPR News, Philadelphia.

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