Six days before the Pennsylvania primary, Republicans are openly concerned that a leading candidate in the crowded GOP field for governor in the fall general election will be ineligible and will miss the party an opportunity to take the battleground state’s leadership.
Doug Mastriano, 58, a state senator since 2019 and a retired U.S. Army colonel, is running to the right of the nine-man Republican field and against the party’s founding in a state still beset by former President Donald Trump’s baseless conspiracy theories , which the Democrats have stolen, is rocking the 2020 election there.
Mastriano is a prominent peddler of the unsubstantiated claims that widespread fraud marred the 2020 election and that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf was responsible for thousands of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. During the pandemic, he has belittled efforts to contain the virus and promoted conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccine.
That has long made Republican Party officials and movement conservatives uneasy that Mastriano will not be able to win a matchup in the fall general election against Democrat Josh Shapiro, and they are becoming increasingly vocal about it.
On Monday, Senate Republican faction leader Kim Ward endorsed a rival candidate, Dave White, and singled out Mastriano’s failure to attract the moderate voters needed to win the Pennsylvania general election.
Mastriano “has appeal to grassroots Republicans, but I fear Democrats will destroy him with swing voters,” Ward wrote on her personal Facebook page. She added that “it’s not a win to win the primary and lose the general because the candidate can’t get voters centered.”
Mike McMonagle, president of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Coalition, said Mastriano gets a top rating from his organization for supporting a total abortion ban with no exceptions. But the organization supports White, at least in part, because Mastriano “we think would be crushed by Shapiro in a general election.”
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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.
Losing the contest again this year would mean the Republicans squander their move: The party has won back office in every election when a limited-term Democrat steps down since the state’s 1968 constitution was changed to allow governors allow to serve two terms.
But Republicans fear Mastriano is too toxic to attract moderate Republican voters and swing voters in the densely populated suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, while jeopardizing low-voting GOP candidates with lackluster turnout at the top.
Mastriano came from nothing in 2020 to become a rising force in right-wing politics.
He led anti-shutdown rallies early in the pandemic, streamed daily live chats on Facebook and toyed with conspiracy theorists. He became a key figure in Trump’s efforts to reverse his loss in the 2020 presidential election – which earned Mastriano a subpoena from the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot in the US Capitol.
Democrats have started paying more attention to Mastriano, portraying him as an extremist in order to weaken him ahead of the general election.
In recent days, Democrats have launched digital ads and flyers attacking Mastriano, while Shapiro aired a nationwide TV ad depicting Mastriano as extreme for his support for an abortion ban, vowing to end mail-in voting and conspiracy-fueled attempts to examine the year 2020 election.
Her closing line is that if Mastriano wins, “it’s a victory for what Donald Trump stands for.”
“Doug Mastriano will drag our Commonwealth backwards with an extreme agenda; he doesn’t belong anywhere near the governorship,” Shapiro’s campaign said in a statement.
In a phone interview with Lancaster-based news organization LNP, Mastriano said Shapiro’s attack will “absolutely” help him win the primary.
“I’ll have to send him a thank you card,” Mastriano told LNP. He added that Shapiro had underestimated him and that the Republican establishment was “panic” at the prospect of him becoming the party’s nominee.
Neither Trump nor the state Republican Party has spoken out in favor of the main race, leaving it that much more open-ended. And Mastriano – once thought of as a fringe candidate – has exceeded expectations in a field where some candidates started out with far more money or notoriety.
A recent Franklin and Marshall College poll found that 20% of GOP primary voters said they supported Doug Mastriano. Bill McSwain and Lou Barletta lagged slightly behind at 12% and 11%, respectively.
Still, a large group of voters, or a third, said they were undecided, and even of those who said they supported a candidate, about half said they might change their minds.
A Trafalgar Group poll released Monday found that Mastriano supports 27.6% of Republican voters, followed by Barletta at 17.6%, White at 15.1% and McSwain at 14.4%. Of the 1,000 voters polled for this poll, only about 11% remained undecided.
Mastriano first gained a following by leading anti-shutdown rallies in the early months of the pandemic, then became Trump’s most committed supporters during the 2020 campaign.
He worked with Trump to reverse the outcome, arranging bus trips to the US Capitol for Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, where he was later seen in footage with his wife being run through by Capitol Police erected breached barricades went.
Last May, he claimed on a radio show that Trump “asked me” to run for governor.
In the weeks that followed, he attempted to launch a partisan Arizona-style “review” of the 2020 election — only to be stripped of his committee chair by the State Senate GOP leadership in a fight over funding and hiring contractors.
Mastriano has boasted that he is more conservative than his rivals, that he attracts more people and is not a politician, a class he derides as corrupt.
He often struggles with key figures in Trump’s circle who are in denial about the 2020 election, including Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn and attorney Jenna Ellis. And he struggles with strong Christian themes, incorporating prayer into his campaign rallies, peppering his speech with quotations from the Bible and calling for fasting for the last 21 days of elementary school.
“So let’s stand strong together to take back our state and when Pennsylvania is restored I believe there will be a revival here like we’ve never seen before,” Mastriano said on his week-long bus tour in Somerset on Monday. “And it will bring our nation back to where it needs to be, in God.”
A general election cycle will pose new challenges for Mastriano.
He has largely avoided speaking to independent media outlets, including NBC10 and The Associated Press, and barred reporters from his campaign events. He has not responded to requests for comment on various topics in recent months. Last week, he went on the conservative Delaware Valley Journal podcast before having what the organization called a “meltdown” and hanging up after 20 minutes.
What Mastriano sparked were questions about his recent address to an audience of QAnon supporters, his voter fraud allegations, and his Jan. 6 Capitol activities.
The committee’s Jan. 6 subpoena was raised at the only live televised primary debate in which Mastriano attended. He insisted he had no “legal issues.”
Meanwhile, Shapiro has united the Democratic Party and its allies.
Washington County Republican Party leader Dave Ball said many Republicans are concerned that Mastriano’s appeal is weak.
But, he said, Republicans will need Mastriano and his constituents, and vice versa, to beat Shapiro regardless of who wins the primary.
“The whole Republican party had better get behind the winner,” Ball said, “because Josh Shapiro is still there.”