How Doug Mastriano built a grassroots movement in Pa. on election denial, Christianity, and Facebook
by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA and Ethan Edward Coston of Spotlight PA
HARRISBURG — Two years ago, one Republican operative responded to the thought of a Doug Mastriano gubernatorial run with: “Seriously?”
Now, despite last-minute efforts by Republican insiders, he is Pennsylvania’s GOP nominee for governor.
The 58-year-old, arch-conservative state senator and retired Army colonel won 44% of the vote Tuesday, according to unofficial results, defying the last-minute efforts of top consultants and party bigwigs to cast him as unelectable against Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro.
On the issues, Mastriano gave full-throated endorsements of the conservative agenda, including the repeal of Pennsylvania’s no-excuse mail-in ballot law, an abortion ban, and former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud.
These positions were echoed by many in the nine-person primary field. But what made him stand out was his unapologetic embrace of those positions’ extremes — such as allowing no exceptions for rape, incest, or the life of the parent on the former, or sharing patently false information on the number of mail-in ballots requested in 2020.
GOP operatives, many of whom worked for rival candidates, had argued that such positions won’t fly with the moderates and independent voters needed to win the state come November.
He also was a middling fundraiser, raising just $1.5 million, fifth-most in the GOP field, but almost all from individual, small-dollar donors. And he garnered just a handful of endorsements from state GOP officials, instead racking up endorsements from former Trump administration officials, such as former National Security Advisor Gen. Michael Flynn.
So his win, insiders told Spotlight PA, cannot be attributed to prolific fundraising or institutional support, but to a grassroots movement slowly built through sharing those beliefs in earnest social media videos and during intimate gatherings, often in speeches riddled with sarcasm, historical allusions, and attacks on his perceived enemies in the media and across the political spectrum.
The first sign of this power, sources said, was when Mastriano submitted 28,000 signatures to qualify for the statewide ballot in Pennsylvania. He needed only 2,000.
Signatures are the first test for most candidates — and a grind at that. Usually, paid campaign staff can struggle to collect the bare minimum number required by law.
Mastriano’s signatures are what convinced Jason Richey, a lawyer from Western Pennsylvania, to drop out of the gubernatorial race. Despite making the ballot and sinking $1 million of his own money into his candidacy, he opted to end his campaign and endorse ex-federal prosecutor Bill McSwain in March.
He encouraged others to do the same. The suggestion didn’t go over well.
“I may not be able to use some of the words that were said to me, but there was stiff resistance,” Richey said.
Jeff Coleman, a former western Pennsylvania state representative and political operative who barnstormed the state this year in an unsuccessful run for lieutenant governor, said Mastriano’s campaign methods “fit the moment” for GOP voters.
Coleman, who sparred with Mastriano’s preferred running mate Teddy Daniels over his tone and approach, said that rank-and-file Republicans had a “fireside chat” relationship with Mastriano.
Over the past two years, Mastriano has done hundreds of Facebook Live videos to explain his thoughts and feelings about the state of the world, often repeating conspiracy theories or railing against mainstream Republicans in the process.
“They know his voice. They know if he is angry. They know when he is calling them to action,” Coleman said, “and it’s a relationship.”
One campaign, under God
Mastriano built a broad coalition of supporters based on his work combating COVID-19 lockdowns early in the pandemic, combatting mask and vaccine mandates, and his work to overturn the results of the 2020 election. His religious appeals have also helped him get support from evangelicals.
Mastriano was central in Trump’s attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
He hosted a taxpayer-funded meeting in Gettysburg to amplify the Trump campaign’s false claims of widespread voter fraud, and later called on the legislature to ignore the popular vote and appoint its own slate of electors.
His statements that the state legislature can ignore the popular vote to appoint electors have raised concerns that he could overturn the results of the 2024 election if a Democrat wins, and he’d have the power to appoint the secretary of state, who leads the department responsible for conducting elections.
Those positions played a key role in Mastriano’s appeal to some voters.
Toni Shuppe is co-founder of Audit the Vote PA, an organization that has alleged widespread voter fraud in 2020 based on faulty data, according to LNP | Lancaster Online.
“[Mastriano] was actually the only senator, first of all, that was willing to admit that the 2020 election was not completely free and fair,” she said in a video endorsement.
At a March campaign event in Harrisburg hosted by the Republican National Hispanic Assembly of Pennsylvania, Mastriano emphasized his faith, condemned the “genocide” of abortion, and criticized COVID-19 lockdowns.
“Under Gov. Mastriano, you’ll choose how to live your life,” Mastriano said. “You will walk as free men and women the way God intended it to be.”
Mastriano gained support from evangelicals by harnessing Christian nationalism, a movement of people who believe the United States is a Christian nation and needs to be kept that way. And on the campaign trail, he’s spoken of how he believes God told him to run for governor, and used calls to action invoking biblical and historical references.
This can even be seen on his campaign yard signs, which often include in the bottom right corner the reference point John 8:36, a Bible verse that states “so if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”
Leaders of the state Hispanic assembly said they supported Mastriano because he took the time to engage with the group when it was new and other lawmakers wouldn’t meet with them.
“When we met him, he gave us the time of day when nobody else would,” said the group’s co-chair Sheila Perez-Smith.
She told Spotlight PA that Mastriano embodies the Hispanic community’s values.
“Mastriano is a person that we believe God is using to be a leader for this community,” she said.
Perez-Smith claimed seven Democrats switched their voter registration to the Republican party after hearing Mastriano speak. Voter registration data from the PA Department of State show that Republicans have made gains in party registration, but Democrats still have a lead of a little over half a million.
A coming pivot?
On May 17, Mastriano’s name appeared alongside eight other Republicans including Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre) and former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R., Pa.).
Much of the field was recruited by big-name GOP consulting firms, not because they had an overarching vision for the state, but because they fit a checklist of electable traits, whether its name ID, personal wealth, or “a moldable public policy persona,” Coleman said.
These candidates, he said, had a hard time gaining traction compared to Mastriano, while their attacks sounded hollow.
“Campaigns that are reduced to 30-second ads or mailpieces don’t give you enough information when you are up against a voice that feels and sounds totally authentic,” Coleman said.
Without any consolidation, the race remained open. It wasn’t until early May, with the primary less than two weeks away and polls showing a growing Mastriano lead, that Republican power players, such as Jeff Yass-funded operative Matt Brouillette, again tried to consolidate the field behind Barletta.
Insiders argued in the press that Mastriano couldn’t win the general election against Shapiro. But by then, it was too little too late.
Just two candidates polling in the single digits, Corman and ex-U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart (R., Pa.), agreed to endorse Barletta — though their names stayed on the ballot.
Sources from the top candidates’ campaigns argued that the late efforts didn’t succeed because no one wanted to give up their chance to win after months of campaigning.
State Sen. Dan Laughlin (R., Erie) is a colleague of Mastriano’s who dropped out of the gubernatorial race in December to endorse Delaware County business owner Dave White. In the lead-up to the primary, he called for others to do the same while arguing that Mastriano would be the weakest candidate in November.
Now, post-primary, he believes Mastriano has a shot at winning.
“Doug built a grassroots army, and he handily beat a field of some very well-funded candidates,” he said. “So I don’t think Josh Shapiro should take this race for granted.”
Laughlin isn’t alone. In the days since Mastriano’s victory, other GOP officials and operatives have said publicly they see a clear, albeit slim, path for him to win in November.
Mastriano noted the overnight change in tone in a Wednesday interview.
“Some of the candidates really hit me hard with negative ads, but all the major candidates called me up yesterday and said, basically, we’re going to get behind you. And that’s exactly how we take our state back,” Mastriano said. “It’s time to come together and push back on these radical far-left Democrats that are trying to take over our state and our nation.”
Laughlin, a vocal moderate who has supported paid family leave, recreational marijuana, and a minimum wage increase, cited internal polling he conducted during his run to argue that Mastriano can win if he softens his stances on specific issues, such as abortion.
Following the leak of a draft U.S. Supreme Court opinion that would overturn Roe v. Wade, Mastriano committed again to signing a bill that would ban abortion around six weeks of pregnancy with no exceptions for rape, incest, or parental health, something he’s introduced as a state senator.
A March 2022 Franklin & Marshall College poll found that 31% of Pennsylvania voters think abortion should be legal in all circumstances, 13% in none, and 53% under “certain circumstances.” What those circumstances are was not defined in the question.
The shadow of January 6
Whether Mastriano will pivot to positions mainstream Republicans find more palatable is unclear. Former gubernatorial candidate Richey said he would support down-ballot Republicans, but was undecided on Mastriano.
“If he wants to sit down and talk, I would certainly sit down with him,” Richey said. “But some of the background, I do have some hesitancy.”
Along with promoting false claims of voter fraud, U.S. Senate Democrats have alleged Mastriano tried to pressure U.S. Department of Justice officials to overturn the 2020 election.
Using his campaign account, he chartered buses to a rally that preceded the Jan. 6 insurrection. He marched to the U.S. Capitol but claimed he left when the mob became violent. Video later emerged showing Mastriano crossed breached barricades.
In February, the U.S. House of Representatives Jan. 6 select committee subpoenaed Mastriano, telling him to turn over documents by March 1 and appear for a deposition on March 10.
Committee spokespersons did not respond to Spotlight PA’s questions about whether he complied. In April, Mastriano said during a debate, “There are no legal issues.”
A top national Republican group that pours millions into electing Republican governors also issued a tepid statement after Mastriano’s win.
Access to such a group’s money, insiders noted, will also be key for Mastriano to defeat Shapiro, a top-dollar fundraiser who has at least $15.8 million in the bank, with November still six months away.
Highlighting all these stances will be a big part of Shapiro’s campaign. In a statement issued after his win, Shapiro, referencing Mastriano’s stances on voting and abortion, said that he “wants to dictate how Pennsylvanians live their lives – that’s not freedom.”
Coleman said that Mastriano, and any other candidate who was at or near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, should explain if they would go to D.C. again on that day, knowing what they know now.
“I think that’s the question that you want any mature leader to be able to answer,” he said.
But he warned that “just making people aware of a certain set of core negative facts about Mastriano” won’t be enough to sink his chances.
At Coleman’s election night party, Bob Lauric, a 47-year-old teacher and Camp Hill resident, said he voted for Barletta in the primary because friends told him that Mastriano wouldn’t win a general election.
He has “nothing against” Mastriano, and wants to do more research on him and Shapiro before the general election, but typically votes straight Republican. A Christian, he supports abortion restrictions, an issue that normally decides who he votes for.
Lauric added that he “wasn’t a fan” of Mastriano’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, and acknowledged that it is “damaging to our system of democracy.”
But “to me personally, it’s not a huge deal,” he said. Either way, “it doesn’t excite me.”