HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — With six days until Pennsylvania's primary, Republicans are openly worrying that a leading candidate in the crowded GOP field for governor is unelectable in the fall general election and will fumble away an opportunity for the party to take over the battleground state's executive suite.
Doug Mastriano, 58, a state senator since 2019 and a retired U.S. Army colonel, is running to the right of the nine-person Republican field and against the party's establishment in a state still roiled by former President Donald Trump's baseless conspiracy theories that Democrats stole 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 belittled efforts to contain the virus and spread conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccine.
That has long made Republican Party officials and movement conservatives uncomfortable about Mastriano's prospects in a fall general election matchup against Democrat Josh Shapiro, and they are becoming more vocal about it.
On Monday, the state Senate's Republican floor leader, Kim Ward, endorsed a rival candidate, Dave White, and singled out Mastriano as unable to attract the moderate voters necessary to win a general election in Pennsylvania.
Mastriano "has appeal to base Republicans, but I fear the Democrats will destroy him with swing voters," Ward wrote on her personal Facebook page. She added that "winning the primary and losing the general because the candidate is unable to get the voters in the middle, isn't a win."
Mike McMonagle, president of the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Coalition, said Mastriano gets a top rating from his organization because he supports a complete ban on abortion, no exceptions. But the organization is endorsing White at least in part because Mastriano "in our judgment would get clobbered by Shapiro in a general election."
Republicans have been shut out of the governor's office in Pennsylvania since 2014 under Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who is barred by term limits from running again.
Losing the contest again this year would mean that Republicans squander their turn: the party has won back the office in every election when a term-limited Democrat is leaving since the state's constitution changed in 1968 to allow governors to serve two terms.
But Republicans worry that Mastriano is too toxic to win moderate Republican voters and swing voters in the heavily populated suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh while endangering down-ballot GOP candidates with a lackluster top-of-the-ticket turnout.
Mastriano came from nowhere in 2020 to become a rising force in right-wing politics.
He led anti-shutdown rallies during the start of the pandemic, livestreaming daily chats on Facebook and playing to conspiracy theorists. He became a key figure in the effort by Trump to overturn his 2020 presidential election loss — earning Mastriano a subpoena by the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Democrats have begun to pay more attention to Mastriano, portraying him as an extremist in a bid to weaken him ahead of the general election.
In recent days, Democrats launched digital ads and flyers attacking Mastriano while Shapiro is airing a statewide TV ad portraying Mastriano as extreme because of his support for a ban on abortion, vow to repeal mail-in voting and conspiracy-driven attempts to investigate the 2020 election.
Their closing line is if Mastriano wins, "it's a win for what Donald Trump stands for."
"Doug Mastriano will drag our commonwealth backwards with an extreme agenda; he belongs nowhere near the governorship," Shapiro's campaign said in a statement.
In a phone interview with the Lancaster-based LNP news organization, Mastriano said Shapiro's attack will "absolutely" help him win the primary.
"I'm going to have to send him a thank you card," Mastriano told LNP. He added that Shapiro has underestimated him and that the Republican establishment "is in a panic mode" at the prospect that he will be the party's nominee.
Neither Trump nor the state Republican Party have endorsed in the primary race, leaving it that much more wide open. And Mastriano — once thought of as a fringe candidate — has outperformed expectations in a field where some candidates began with far more money or name recognition.
A recent Franklin and Marshall College poll showed 20% of GOP primary voters saying they support Doug Mastriano. Bill McSwain and Lou Barletta trailed slightly, with 12% and 11%, respectively.
Still, a large group of voters, or one-third, said they were undecided and, even among those who said they were backing a candidate, about half said they may change their minds.
Mastriano first gained a following by leading anti-shutdown rallies during the early months of the pandemic, then became among Trump's most dedicated supporters during the 2020 campaign.
He worked with Trump to overturn the result and organized bus trips to the U.S. Capitol for Trump's Jan. 6 "Stop the Steal" rally, where he was later seen in footage with his wife passing through breached barricades set up by Capitol Police.
Last May, he claimed on a radio show that Trump " asked me " to run for governor.
In the weeks after that, he attempted to launch an Arizona-style partisan "audit" of the 2020 election — only to be stripped of his committee chairmanship by state Senate GOP leadership in clash over financing and hiring contractors.
Mastriano has bragged that he is more conservative than his rivals, that he draws bigger crowds and is not a politician, a class he derides as corrupt.
He often campaigns with key figures in Trump's circle who have spread denialism about the 2020 election, including Trump's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and lawyer Jenna Ellis. And he campaigns with strong Christian themes, working prayers into his campaign events, peppering his speech with quotes from the Bible and calling for a fast for the final 21 days of the primary.
"So let's stand strong together, take our state back, and when Pennsylvania is restored I believe there's going to be a revival here like we've never seen before," Mastriano told an audience Monday in Somerset on his weeklong bus tour. "And it's going to bring our nation back to where it needs to be, in God."
A general election cycle will bring new challenges for Mastriano.
He has largely avoided speaking to independent media outlets, including The Associated Press, and barred reporters from his campaign events. 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 set off Mastriano were questions about him speaking to an audience of QAnon adherents recently, his election fraud claims and his activities at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
The subpoena from the Jan. 6 committee came up at the only live televised primary debate Mastriano attended. He insisted he has no "legal issues."
Meanwhile, Shapiro has unified the Democratic Party and its allies.
Dave Ball, the chairman of the Washington County Republican Party, said many Republicans are concerned that Mastriano's appeal is narrow.
But, he said, Republicans will need Mastriano and his voters, and vice versa, to beat Shapiro, regardless of who wins the primary.
"The whole Republican party better be behind whoever the winner is," Ball said, "because Josh Shapiro is still there."
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