HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Donald Trump endorsed Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania’s Republican primary for governor on Saturday, siding with a far-right candidate who was outside the US Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot and worked with determination to reverse the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Mastriano already led a crowded field of contenders, and the former president’s confirmation puts him on an even stronger footing ahead of Tuesday’s primary.
But there are growing fears from party leaders that Mastriano, a state senator and retired US Army colonel, is too extreme to beat Democrat Josh Shapiro in November’s general election, and other Republicans competing in the crucial state, could bring down. That includes a US Senate contest in which Trump is attempting to lead his nominee, who he supports, to victory in a hard-fought race.
Mastriano, for example, has helped spread unsubstantiated claims by Trump and his allies that Democrats fraudulently stole the election for Joe Biden — something Trump echoed in his endorsement statement.
“There is no one in Pennsylvania who has done more for election integrity or fought harder than State Senator Doug Mastriano,” Trump wrote. “He exposed the fraud, corruption and outright theft of the 2020 presidential election and will do something about it.”
Trump called Mastriano “a fighter like few others and has been with me from the start and now I have a duty to be with him.”
In addition to campaigning against key figures in Trump’s circle who spread lies about the last election, Mastriano has also launched a plan that would allow state legislatures to obliterate that election result and make their own decision about which candidate won the to receive state electoral votes.
As a result, on January 6, 2021, he was subpoenaed by the US House of Representatives Committee to Inquire into the Capitol Riot.
Mastriano has announced he will take the extraordinary step of requiring voters to “re-register” in order to vote. “We’re starting over again,” he said during a debate last month.
Such a move is prohibited by the national voter registration law and is likely to face significant protections under the constitution and federal — and possibly state — laws, constitutionalists say.
After the election, Mastriano boasted to supporters in online chats about his frequent conversations with Trump. Mastriano organized bus trips to the US Capitol for Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally just before the riot, where footage of Mastriano was seen with his wife walking through breached barricades set up by police.
Trump was torn over the endorsement decision in the governor’s race.
Some allies desperately urged him to stay out of the race or back a Mastriano rival, like Lou Barletta, a former congressman who was the party’s Trump-backed nominee for the US Senate in 2018.
Mastriano is leading the nine-strong Republican field, with party officials and conservatives believing the vote for a more eligible establishment candidate is too fragmented to prevent its consolidation of far-right voters.
On Friday, Mastriano told former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s online show War Room that the Republican establishment is “panicizing, I mean literally wetting itself” at the prospect of him being the nominee.
In a statement Saturday, Mastriano said he was “honored” to have Trump’s endorsement, citing Pennsylvanians “who want their individual liberties restored, power returned to the people, and their elected leaders to push the agenda of… America First – and Pennsylvania First – comply.”
“Our grassroots supporters across Pennsylvania know that Donald Trump and I will always stand behind them,” Mastriano wrote. “We are all committed to ending the era of party bosses, dark money interest groups and flawed elections.”
Barletta has spent the last few days collecting endorsements from the establishment, including from members of Congress. He has avoided criticizing Mastriano by name other than trying to argue that he is the most eligible candidate in the primary.
On Saturday he claimed he could still beat Mastriano.
“I will continue to argue to the people that I am the only candidate who can unite the party and bring victory in November. I look forward to receiving confirmation from President Trump Wednesday morning,” Barletta wrote.
Trump’s main focus in Pennsylvania was the Senate primary, where his recommended nominee, famed heart surgeon Mehmet Oz, is seen as vulnerable.
In many cases, ordinary Republican voters, conservative activists, and pro-Trump hardliners have refused to support Oz just because Trump does.
Some allies had tried to convince the former president that supporting Mastriano would hurt Oz because Mastriano had closely allied with and fought with one of Oz’s rivals, Kathy Barnette.
But while Trump worries about Oz’s odds, supporting Mastriano is seen as a way to protect his ego and offer a likely win if Oz ends up losing.
Republicans, in particular, fear Mastriano is too toxic to win over moderate voters in the populous suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in November. Critics fear he will endanger GOP candidates with a lackluster turnout at the top.
Still, Barletta has acknowledged that there are very few political differences between himself and Mastriano.
Republicans have been barred from the Pennsylvania governor’s office since 2014 under Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who is barred from running for re-election by term limits.