ROCHESTER, Pa. – A giant American flag dangled from a truck-mounted boom lift in a grassy lot here, about 25 miles outside Pittsburgh. Inside a weathered Grange hall, the ceiling fans spun furiously as a few hundred people packed in to hear the Republican nominee for governor, state senator Doug Mastriano. The crowd ranged from families with young kids to solo seniors, and many came sporting the latest right-wing swag: Trump 2024 hats, T-shirts with the slogans “Impeach Biden” and “Baby Lives Matter,” and one with the logo of the Three Percenters militia group.
Mastriano was introduced by activists demanding an audit of the 2020 election, circulating ballot petitions to ban electronic voting machines in their counties and describing the search warrant at Trump’s Florida Mar-a-Lago Club for classified documents as the onset of totalitarianism. The candidate himself drew some of his loudest cheers and applause for recounting his leading role in trying to reject the election results in Pennsylvania and promising to use his powers as governor to change the state’s voting procedures.
“The Democrats talk about how everything they don’t like reminds them of some dictator from the ’30s, or everything they don’t like is a danger to ‘democracy,’ ” Mastriano said with a scoff. “We’re a constitutional republic.”
Since winning the primary in May with 44% of the vote – after snagging a last-minute endorsement from former president Donald Trump and surviving a late scramble to consolidate the vote against him – Mastriano has eschewed the typical path of reorienting his campaign toward the middle. Instead, he has held fast to the same issues that drove his rise after attending the Stop the Steal rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, and openly embracing Christian nationalism.
But many Republicans say Mastriano’s focus on base voters has made it hard for him to raise money and broaden his appeal, hurting the party’s chances in November. Mastriano’s latest campaign finance report showed less than $400,000 as of a June, and the campaign hasn’t bought any airtime on local TV. He only grants interviews to friendly outlets such as right-wing talk radio and the podcast hosted by former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon. The campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this article.
And Mastriano has yet to secure support from the deep-pocketed Republican Governors Association, which did not hesitate to say it would back Kari Lake – another far-right candidate who echoes Trump’s election falsehoods – after she won the Arizona gubernatorial primary this month. The RGA did not respond to requests for comment.
“He has to come up with a Hail Mary pass to pull this out,” said former Republican congressman Tom Marino, who supported runner-up Lou Barletta in the gubernatorial primary.
Mastriano’s Democratic opponent, state attorney general Josh Shapiro, has spent the summer hammering him with ads painting him as an extremist on issues from elections to abortion and a threat to Pennsylvanians’ individual freedoms. Recent polls have showed Shapiro leading, but Democrats remain on guard as President Joe Biden’s favorability remains low.
The stakes in the Pennsylvania governor’s race are especially high since the winner would have substantial powers overseeing the 2024 presidential election in a critical battleground. Mastriano has said he wants to decommission the state’s voting machines and force all voters to re-register – an idea that conflicts with federal law.
His campaign is being advised by former Trump campaign lawyer Jenna Ellis, and Mastriano has promised to pick a chief elections officer who’s well known in the denier movement that rejects the outcome of the 2020 election, though he hasn’t provided a name. He said his campaign wants to recruit 20,000 volunteers to station two observers at every polling place in November.
Mastriano has also sparked new controversies this summer, drawing condemnation for repeating a falsehood about Democratic megadonor George Soros and for his ties to a white-nationalist social media site. He cut off an interview with the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol after about 15 minutes, saying little and demanding to record the session. On Friday, Reuters released a photo showing Mastriano posing in a Confederate uniform for a faculty photo at the Army War College in 2014.
He has not put any distance between himself and Trump, in contrast to Senate candidate Mehmet Oz, who removed Trump’s endorsement from the top of his website after Pennsylvania’s primary. Trump is planning a rally in Wilkes-Barr, Pa., with “the entire Pennsylvania Trump Ticket,” including Mastriano and Oz, over Labor Day weekend. And Mastriano got a boost on Aug. 19 from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a likely 2024 presidential contender, at a rally in Pittsburgh hosted by the right-wing organization Turning Point USA.
“Republican organizations in Pennsylvania and throughout the country need to be invested in this race,” DeSantis said at the rally. He touted laws he championed in Florida to restrict voting and prosecute voter fraud, concluding, “And you guys can have all that happen here in Pennsylvania if you elect Doug to the governorship.”
At recent campaign stops, Mastriano took some clear steps attempting to soften his image. After barring reporters from events, he started letting in local TV cameras, though he still is not taking questions. And he is now emphasizing a broader range of issues than the 2020 election, including standard Republican refrains about inflation, crime and immigration.
There were signs that Mastriano’s charm offensive found some success. “I was much more impressed with him than I thought I’d be,” a man said while leaving the speech at the Grange with a yard sign. Two days later, at a meet-and-greet on the other side of the Pittsburgh region, a local Republican committee member named Linda, who declined to give her last name, said she was surprised by how the candidate she met contrasted with the blunt hard-liner she’d seen in ads.
“He was genuine,” she said. “Today he explained more about it, and he was softer.”
Dave Ball, the Republican Party chairman in nearby Washington County who expressed concerns during the primary about Mastriano’s ability to appeal to moderates and independents, said he’s now attended several campaign stops and has seen people who weren’t part of Mastriano’s original group.
“People are beginning to realize he’s not as radical as people might have thought,” Ball said. “A lot of voters are reaching out now, looking at Mastriano and saying, ‘Hey, his positions are really our positions.'”
Another local GOP committee member who had opposed Mastriano in the primary said the current dynamic reminded her of Trump’s 2016 campaign, when Republicans learned to overlook the candidate’s faults and rally around their nominee.
“I do still think he speaks without thinking maybe sometimes, but at least he’s transparent,” said the committee member, Mary Kaye Soriano of Zelienople. “Sometimes President Trump’s filter doesn’t work so well either, but we still love him. I have faith Mastriano will step up to the plate.”
Shapiro has rolled out endorsements from Republicans including former congressman Charlie Dent, former state legislators, a former county GOP chair and a former state Supreme Court justice. Other Republicans launched a group to narrowly target GOP voters who could be persuaded to oppose Mastriano.
“In a more normal world and time, Mastriano wouldn’t have a chance in Pennsylvania,” said Craig Snyder, a former aide to former senator Arlen Specter who’s running the project. “But we don’t live in normal times. We live in hyperpartisan times.”
Other establishment Republicans are keeping Mastriano at arm’s length. The Commonwealth Leadership Fund, a well-funded free-market conservative PAC that opposed Mastriano in the primary, is now buying billboards attacking Shapiro. Treasurer Matt Brouillette said the group is aiming to help down-ballot state legislature candidates by preventing Shapiro from running up the score. The group has millions of dollars worth of TV airtime reserved for the fall.
“While we’ve anti-endorsed Josh, we haven’t endorsed Doug,” Brouillette said.
The group’s top donor is the state’s richest man, investor Jeffrey Yass, who opposed Mastriano. A spokeswoman for Yass declined to comment.
Former state party chair Rob Gleason said Mastriano is hamstringing his own campaign by sticking to friendly crowds and media without reaching out to the broader population.
“I don’t see that he’s grown yet,” Gleason said. “The excitement over governor is nonexistent right now in Pennsylvania.”
Anthony Cristillo, a two-time Trump voter in the Harrisburg area, said he’s planning to write in Barletta rather than support Mastriano, understanding he’s wasting his vote but wanting to make a statement.
“It wasn’t a ‘stolen election’ as he continues to talk about,” Cristillo said. “The guy’s a nut, he really is.”
For his part, Mastriano is working to escape the “extremist” label by turning it right around on his detractors. He has called the Democrats extreme for supporting abortion rights, transgender athletes, and mask mandates and public health restrictions on businesses during the pandemic.
“I’m going to show you who the real extremist is in this race, and it’s not me and it’s not us,” Mastriano said in the speech at the Grange hall. “The Democrats are just too extreme, too radical. They think they can get away with a way to oppress people, to raid a former president’s house. And we the people aren’t stupid – look at the crowds here.”
At another rally east of Pittsburgh, two days later, Mastriano, flanked by an American flag and a Christian flag, was introduced by a pastor who said, “Doug is laying down his life for you, for me, for the residents of Pennsylvania, and to God be the glory.”
In his speech, Mastriano proposed sending the state police to round up undocumented immigrants and take them to Biden’s Delaware home; pulling out of a regional pact to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; reduce regulations; impose a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison for fentanyl dealers whose sales lead to overdose deaths; protect police from “ridiculous social justice warriors” so they won’t be prosecuted for a “split-second decision”; restrict instruction about racism in schools; and reinstate government employees who refused coronavirus vaccines.
Returning to the subject of transgender athletes, Mastriano referenced a man in Loudoun County, Va., who was arrested in disorderly conduct at a school board meeting after his daughter was sexually assaulted in a school restroom.
“What kind of government is this?” Mastriano said.
“A tyrannical government,” someone shouted back.
“These people are insane,” Mastriano said. “I will stand as your guard of your freedoms and of your rights as your governor.” The crowd cheered.