HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Republicans are warming up to Doug Mastriano.
When he crushed a nine-person field to win the GOP nomination for Pennsylvania governor in May, some in the party warned that Mastriano's far-right views on everything from abortion to the 2020 presidential election would squander an otherwise attainable seat in a critical battleground state. But now, as the general election season intensifies, the GOP machinery is cranking up to back Mastriano's campaign and attack his Democratic rival, Josh Shapiro.
Mastriano spoke in Aspen, Colorado, last week at an event with donors sponsored by the Republican Governors Association. At the GOP's “Rally at the Rock” campaign event in northern Pennsylvania earlier this month, the independently elected state treasurer, Stacy Garrity, introduced Mastriano as “our next governor." County offices and booths are festooned with his campaign signs and he spoke at this month's closed-door state party meeting. And on Wednesday, a pair of top party officials are hosting a fundraiser for Mastriano.
In one of America's most politically divided states, the GOP's embrace of a candidate who opposes abortion rights with no exceptions, spread conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and was outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection risks alienating moderate party members. But some Republicans say they're duty bound to get behind their party's nominee.
“When you play team sports, you learn what being part of a team means,” said Andy Reilly, the state GOP's national committeeman and co-host of Wednesday's fundraiser. “Our team voted for him in the primary and, no matter how you slice it, his philosophies are much better to run the state than a career politician like Josh Shapiro.”
November's election has major implications.
Working with a Republican-controlled Legislature, Mastriano could dramatically scale back access to abortion. And he would be able to appoint Pennsylvania's secretary of state, giving him tremendous power over elections in a state that is often decisive in presidential campaigns.
Perhaps with that in mind, some Republicans have been tentative about vocally supporting Mastriano.
The Republican Governors Association — typically a source of millions of dollars for GOP campaigns — has done next to nothing to publicly praise Mastriano, as it has other Republican nominees.
But that could change as the fall campaign nears. Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, the RGA's co-chairman, told CNN this month that he would not rule out helping Mastriano and suggested that the group would help if Shapiro appears beatable.
“The job of the RGA is to elect Republican governors, and that’s what we’re going to do in this cycle,” Ducey said.
Mastriano and Shapiro are vying for the right to succeed Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who is constitutionally term-limited after entering office in 2015.
Shapiro, the state's two-time elected attorney general, unified the party behind his candidacy, running an uncontested primary campaign and rolling up strong fundraising numbers. He also has ties to some prominent Republicans in Philadelphia and its heavily populated suburbs.
His campaign recently rolled out a list of onetime Republican elected officials who are endorsing him, while another group of Republicans have started a group called Republicans for Shapiro to sway votes against Mastriano.
Mastriano dismissed them as “has-beens.”
Still, the party's traditional donor community around the state is — by many accounts — sitting on their wallets at a time when Mastriano is badly lagging Shapiro in fundraising. That includes prominent Philadelphia-area donors and fundraisers who long have financed Republican campaigns but know Shapiro well and likely reject Mastriano's socially conservative politics.
“That’s going to make it much tougher for Mastriano to break into that southeastern Pennsylvania kind of money, that group of big-time donors and fundraisers,” said David Urban, a Republican strategist who worked on Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
Beyond that, Mastriano as the party’s standard-bearer is causing heartburn, and some party officials declined to speak on the record about him.
The unifying theme is a distaste for Mastriano.
No GOP contender for governor in the U.S. did more to subvert the 2020 presidential election than Mastriano — and no one may be better positioned to subvert the next one if he’s elected governor.
He has rubbed elbows with QAnon conspiracy theorists, Trump's most prominent election-denying allies and people arrested in the attack on the U.S. Capitol. His active account on Gab — a social media site popular with white supremacists and antisemites where he also spent $5,000 for advertising — prompted a condemnation by the national Republican Jewish Coalition.
He has been one of Pennsylvania’s leading spreaders of Trump’s lies about fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
His plan to overturn the election results — introduced as a resolution in the Legislature — drew a subpoena from the U.S. House committee investigating the insurrection.
Mastriano later organized bus trips to Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and, afterward, can be seen in photos walking past breached police lines to where he watched pro-Trump demonstrators clash with police on the Capitol steps. That prompted an FBI interview, though he has not been charged with a crime.
Then there's Mastriano's embrace of Christian nationalism, which scholars generally define as championing a fusion of American and Christian values, symbols and identity. Christian nationalism, they say, is often accompanied by a belief that God has destined America, like the biblical Israel, for a special role in history, and that it will receive divine blessing or judgment depending on its obedience.
Mastriano has also condemned the GOP establishment, refuses to speak with most mainstream media organizations and backed a ban on abortion, with no exceptions, that turns off some party officials in Pennsylvania.
That — plus Mastriano's talk of decertifying voting machines, opposing gay marriage and ridiculing climate change as “fake science” — hasn't escaped Shapiro, whose campaign is running a TV ad calling Mastriano “extreme, and way too risky for Pennsylvania.”
Once a Mastriano primary victory appeared inevitable, Trump endorsed him, despite party leaders fearing that he couldn’t win over enough moderate voters to beat Shapiro in November.
State Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, who once warned that “Democrats will destroy him with swing voters,” had dinner with Mastriano following the primary.
Ward said she told Mastriano that “he has my full support because I want a governor who isn’t going to kowtow to the Biden administration and the Democrats’ anti-fossil fuel policy on energy.”
Mastriano is also getting help from an organization whose political action committees are a conduit for campaign cash from billionaire Jeffrey Yass and spent $13 million fruitlessly backing a primary rival to Mastriano while warning that Mastriano could not win swing voters in a general election.
The organization, the Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs, has already commissioned anti-Shapiro billboards and plans to spend millions against Shapiro, its president, Matt Brouillette, said.
Its board has made no decision on whether to endorse Mastriano, he said.
For now, many Republicans are watching Mastriano's efforts to mend fences with the party, raise money and broaden his appeal to swing voters. He has called up some party officials and donors. Some have given him advice, other say they have yet to.
“I will tell him that he’s got to his message out, and he’s got to raise money to get his message out to counter the false portrayal that Josh Shapiro is putting out,” Reilly said.
Some say they see him focusing more on standard GOP talking points, such as inflation, and moving away from talk of 2020's election denial and banning abortion.
Charlie Gerow, a conservative activist who lost to Mastriano in the primary, said he will help Mastriano any way he can — and will tell Mastriano to expand his campaign efforts beyond the most conservative voters.
“A lot will depend on his ability to put together a campaign necessary to win in November,” Gerow said. “And I think he recognizes that he’s got to broaden his appeal in order to win in November.”
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/timelywriter.
Marc Levy, The Associated Press