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Doug Mastriano Gets Pennsylvania Republicans to Close Ranks Behind Him

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Before Pennsylvania’s primary, much of the state’s Republican establishment agreed that Doug Mastriano can be a disaster because the nominee for governor.

Andy Reilly, the state’s Republican national committeeman, had joined a stop-Mastriano effort by rival candidates, who feared that the far-right state senator and prolific spreader of election conspiracy theories would squander an otherwise winnable race.

Yet on a warm evening last month, Mr. Reilly opened his suburban Philadelphia home for a backyard fund-raiser for Mr. Mastriano, who won his primary in May. Guests chipped in $150 for ribs and pulled pork and listened to Mr. Mastriano, fresh from an uproar over his presence on Gab, a social media site that could be a haven for hate speech.

Mr. Reilly later defended Mr. Mastriano because the better option to steer Pennsylvania over his Democratic opponent, Josh Shapiro. “The query is can Doug Mastriano keep the Republican Party base and all of the factions together?” Mr. Reilly said.

In one of the crucial closely watched governor’s races of the yr, Pennsylvania Republican officials who had warned that Mr. Mastriano was unelectable have largely closed ranks behind him, after he proved to be the overwhelming selection of base Republicans. On Friday, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida plans to headline a rally with Mr. Mastriano in Pittsburgh, a bearhug from one in every of the party’s hottest national figures.

Mr. Shapiro, the state attorney general, has used an enormous fund-raising advantage to batter Mr. Mastriano in TV attack ads as an extremist on abortion and on the 2020 election, opening a double-digit lead in polls. Still, Democrats remain anxious they may lose to Mr. Mastriano due to the free-floating anger of the electorate this yr, with most voters frightened primarily in regards to the economy.

Whether the recent run of Democratic successes nationally — including the climate and drug-pricing legislative package and the resounding defeat of an anti-abortion measure in Kansas — can shift the elemental midterm equation stays unclear.

“The environment that Joe Biden has created for Josh Shapiro makes this yr probably the one yr that a Mastriano-type candidate could win in a purple state like Pennsylvania,” said Matt Brouillette, the top of a conservative political group within the state that opposed Mr. Mastriano in the first. “While the Democrats need to give attention to Jan. 6 and Roe v. Wade, the electorate is targeted on putting food on their table and filling up the tanks of their cars.”

The Democratic anxiety was on display recently at a celebration picnic in liberal State College, the house of Pennsylvania State University. At Mr. Shapiro’s mention of Mr. Mastriano during a speech, a lady shouted, “You higher win!”

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Key Revelations From the Jan. 6 Hearings

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There was nervous laughter. The fear reflects the alarm of Democrats that if Mr. Mastriano, 58, becomes governor, he would sign severe abortion restrictions and would have the ability to subvert the 2024 presidential election within the swing state in favor of the G.O.P. nominee.

“I hear it each day,” Mr. Shapiro told the group. “They’re frightened about their rights being ripped away from them.”

Mr. Mastriano, a retired Army officer who led Mr. Trump’s efforts to overturn the election in Pennsylvania, marched on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, passing police barricades breached by other marchers. He has boasted that as governor, “I get to decertify all or any machines within the state.” He has called for compelling all nine million registered voters within the state to re-register, which experts say would violate federal law.

“These are dangerous, extreme positions he’s taken, and these are things I do know the people of Pennsylvania reject,” Mr. Shapiro, 49, said in an interview.

Mr. Shapiro compared the unusually high turnout in deep-red Kansas in favor of abortion rights to how the problem is motivating his own supporters. “We now have seen incredible intensity in our campaign post-Dobbs,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court decision leaving it to states to guard or deny abortion access.

Many ladies who attended his events agreed, saying that abortion is their most significant issue. “I used to be the generation that was young when Roe vs. Wade became the law of the land, and I’ve known women whose health was ruined due to an illegal abortion,” said Bonnie Hannis, 80, who got here to listen to Mr. Shapiro in rural Clinton County.

“I’m excited to defend my reproductive rights,” said Gianna Renzo, 19, who grew up within the county and is now a student at Princeton. “I see women my age who’re typically from Republican families, they usually’re going to return over to the Democratic side” due to abortion.

Mr. Mastriano, the sponsor within the State Legislature of a six-week abortion ban with no exceptions, has appeared to modulate that position recently, saying lawmakers will write whatever bill they select and “my personal views are irrelevant.”

But there are few signs that he has broadened his appeal to independent and swing voters, especially within the suburbs, who’ve played a pivotal role in recent Pennsylvania elections. He was supported by 82 percent of Republicans in a Fox News poll in late July, but independents preferred Mr. Shapiro by 28 points.

Mr. Mastriano declined to comment for this text.

He has routinely snubbed the state’s TV news outlets and newspapers which may help him reach a broader audience. It’s a purposeful strategy geared toward exciting conservatives who imagine that Democrats have “the media of their pockets,” as he recently put it.

This week, he said he wouldn’t take part in traditional debates run by independent news organizations due to what he called their “hidden partisan agenda.” He proposed debates during which each candidate names a moderator — a nonstarter for the Shapiro campaign, which called the concept an “obvious stunt.”

Mr. Mastriano speaks almost exclusively to far-right podcasters like Stephen K. Bannon, conservative talk radio hosts and Fox News. On a recent swing through northwest Pennsylvania, he brushed off a Pittsburgh TV station that sought to interview him, and even the small-circulation Meadville Tribune.

One results of that approach is that he seldom has to field tough questions. And his poor fund-raising — he ended the first season with just $400,000 in his campaign account, compared with $13.4 million for Mr. Shapiro — has left him unable to run TV ads all summer to counter a barrage of attacks from his opponent.

The Shapiro ads use Mr. Mastriano’s words to color him as outside the mainstream, not only on abortion and election denial, but on gay marriage, which he has said should “absolutely not” be legal, and on global warming, which he called “fake science.”

“You’ve principally got a one-person governor’s race immediately by way of voter contact,” said Christopher Nicholas, a Republican consultant within the state. “All the parents who take heed to those far-right podcasts, I feel he maxed out his vote potential. He has to maneuver past his base.”

At a recent appearance by Mr. Mastriano on the York County Fair, there have been no signs on the sprawling fairgrounds directing potential voters his way. Outside the hall where he was to look, a big crowd on bleachers on the appointed hour turned out to be waiting for the Hot Dog Pig Races.

Mr. Mastriano showed up inside on the county Republican booth. He didn’t give a speech, but shook hands and posed for pictures with several dozen supporters.

Donna VanDyne, an insurance agent, supported a no-exceptions abortion ban, claiming that victims of rape or incest who give birth adjust. “After they have their baby, they’ve one another and turn out to be support systems for each other,” she said.

Dawn Smith, an aspiring teacher’s aide, repeated a debunked conspiracy theory Mr. Mastriano had spread about voting machines. “They switched President Trump’s votes to Joe Biden’s votes with the Dominion machines,” she claimed.

Wayne Liek, a retired truck driver, recalling prayers he said at school within the Sixties, agreed with Mr. Mastriano that the Constitutional separation of church and state was, as Mr. Mastriano described it, “a myth.”

A core of Mr. Mastriano’s popularity with Republicans is his embrace of views related to Christian nationalism, the idea that the US was founded as a Christian nation, and sometimes intertwined with far-right conspiratorial considering.

Few attendees seemed aware of the furor over Mr. Mastriano’s presence on Gab. His campaign had paid $5,000 to broaden his support with users of the social media site, which is referred to as a haven for white nationalists. A post by Mr. Mastriano in July criticizing Democratic policies drew dozens of replies that were antisemitic insults of Mr. Shapiro.

Gab’s founder, Andrew Torba, defended Mr. Mastriano in videos laced with antisemitic vitriol. Mr. Mastriano distanced himself from Mr. Torba on July 28, saying that he rejected “antisemitism in any form.’’

At a later appearance where he did give a speech, in Cochranton, Mr. Mastriano said: “It’s funny, they need to call us extremists. They’re the extremists.’’

He attacked Mr. Shapiro for suing, as attorney general, to maintain a mask mandate in schools and to uphold Gov. Tom Wolf’s shutdown of nonessential businesses early within the pandemic. Mr. Mastriano first gained a following for leading protests against restrictions to stop the spread of Covid. Fury at those orders lingers for a lot of conservatives.

Asked in regards to the suits, Mr. Shapiro said that he personally opposes mandates for masks and vaccines, but because the state’s top lawyer he was required to represent the governor and executive branch in litigation. He prevailed in each cases.

Before he campaigned in State College, a blue island in a sea of red in central Pennsylvania, Mr. Shapiro had visited Lock Haven in nearby Clinton County.

Mike Hanna Sr., a retired Democratic state lawmaker from the world, said Mr. Mastriano “has a robust base here, identical to Trump.” But Mr. Hanna said the previous president had lost support since inciting the mob that attacked the Capitol.

“I hunt with a bunch of veterans, they usually just shake their heads,” Mr. Hanna said. “Trump has done rather a lot to erode his standing along with his base, and Mastriano’s participation in all that, and the acute positions he’s taken, have done the identical thing.”

“It’d be rather a lot scarier for us,” Mr. Hanna said, “if the Republicans had chosen a moderate.”

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