Northern York County Regional Police plans to build new headquarters

Mastriano's 'army' worries about crime

William Bender
The Philadelphia Inquirer

EASTON, Pa. — H. Ross Peterson stood in the back of an American Legion hall here last week and surveyed the crowd waiting for Doug Mastriano.

Solid turnout for a Friday afternoon. About 200 chairs, most of them taken.

"This is the fourth time I've seen Doug," Peterson said of the Republican nominee for governor.

Many people call him by his first name. They feel as if they know him.

As the GOP faithful munched on chocolate chip cookies and grabbed Mastriano lawn signs, A-ha's 1985 "Take On Me" played over the speakers. The overall vibe might have been described as ... medium energy — the audience perhaps a tad older and grayer than at the average political rally.

Still, they showed up.

For Peterson, 61, a retired Army major, his main concern is violent crime. Philadelphia recorded 562 homicides last year and 437 so far this year.

"It all has a spillover effect into the suburbs," said Peterson, who had driven more than an hour from his Delaware County home to watch his candidate.

Polls show Mastriano trailing his better-funded Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro. But Mastriano, a state senator from south-central Pennsylvania, continues to draw sizable crowds to his events — sometimes standing room only.

"Doug claims it's a grassroots movement," Peterson said. "It better be, because he can't compare to Shapiro on TV."

For Mastriano, 58, a retired Army colonel, this is his current “army,” as his campaign staff calls his supporters. He’s counting on them to make a last-minute push in the final days of the campaign and spread his conservative message to friends and families. To prove the polls wrong, just as former President Donald Trump did in 2016.

But if Friday's rally was any indication, some of Mastriano's battalions aren't exactly battle-tested.

Don Beishl Jr., a regional director for the campaign, pumped up the audience by telling them he had "no doubt" that, due to their hard work, Mastriano would overcome the odds on Nov. 8 and win.

"How many people in here are knocking on doors, right now, for this campaign?" Beishl asked expectantly. "Raise them hands."

Hardly any hands went up.

Resistant to change

Mastriano has run an unconventional campaign that hasn't evolved much since his big primary win in May.

He crushed eight other Republican candidates with a hard-right strategy and Christian nationalist ideals. He relied on a statewide base built largely on Facebook, first by his opposition to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's coronavirus safety measures, then by his efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, echoing Trump's false claims of widespread voter fraud.

Since then, however, Mastriano has done little to broaden that base. Nor has he attracted much financial help from national GOP organizations. A deep-pocketed conservative group in Pennsylvania that was running ads against Shapiro pulled them down a few weeks ago and expressed frustration with Mastriano's refusal to connect with independent voters and moderate Democrats.

Last week, Trump gave Mastriano another endorsement, writing on his social media platform, Truth Social, that the senator will be a "GREAT Governor for Pennsylvania."

It didn't seem to have the same impact as before, though. That orange might be out of juice.

Between now and Election Day, Mastriano has booked $393,000 in TV advertising, while Shapiro has booked $4.2 million, according to AdImpact, which tracks political advertising.

Shapiro, for his part, has run a smooth campaign that has political insiders talking about his possible White House ambitions. Mastriano has been confronted with months of damaging disclosures about unpopular positions he's taken in recent years: Women who have abortions should be charged with murder; Islam is not "compatible" with the U.S. Constitution; global warming is "fake science."

The list goes on.

On the campaign trail, Mastriano continues to hit the same buttons: restoking voter anger over since-lifted COVID-19 restrictions and serving up a smorgasbord of culture-war grievances, with a focus on gender identity.

For instance, the election is less than two weeks away, but Mastriano remains fixated on Rachel Levine, the state's former health secretary who is transgender. He mentions her with disdain at almost every opportunity, even though she left her state job a year ago to become an admiral in the United States Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

The world that Mastriano paints with derision has males lurking in girls' bathrooms and schoolchildren spending their days viewing pornography and learning to pole dance.

"On day one, woke is broke," he says of his future administration.

The strategy, echoing that of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, does not seem to be enough in Pennsylvania, polls suggest. The numbers have fluctuated, but Shapiro has held a consistent lead since the primary, in some cases by double digits. Recent polls indicate that the race could be tightening.

"If the polling holds where it is right now, don't be surprised if Shapiro wins by a narrower margin," said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. "But I would be surprised if Mastriano pulled out an upset."

Now, in the final days of the campaign, Mastriano is venturing into even more unusual territory.

He recently campaigned with Jack Posobiec, a far-right rabble-rouser known for spreading the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.

Last week, Mastriano did an interview on the conservative Real America's Voice alleging that Shapiro is complicit in child "grooming" and was "standing aside" as Children's Hospital of Philadelphia is "grabbing homeless kids and kids in foster care, apparently, and experimenting on them with gender transitioning." (The hospital has faced threats of violence based on such false claims from conservative social media personalities.)

On Friday, Mastriano’s senior legal adviser, Jenna Ellis, made another round of unwanted headlines by questioning Shapiro’s religious beliefs, calling him “at best a secular Jew.” The misstep revived claims of antisemitism that have dogged Mastriano since July, when it was reported that he’d sought to expand his reach on Gab, a social media site favored by antisemites.

On Saturday, Mastriano was scheduled to appear at ReAwaken America, a right-wing road show that draws QAnon adherents, Christian nationalists, election deniers and other conspiracy theorists. He didn't show, but his campaign set up a table there.

'You asked us'

Mastriano and his wife, Rebbie, have been emphasizing at rallies and in Facebook live videos that they are making a sacrifice, and that their supporters "pleaded" with them to get in the governor's race, "sometimes with tears in your eyes." It's as if to say: Hey, this wasn't our idea, it was yours.

"You compelled us, asked us, prayed for us, urged us to run for office, and we're doing it for you," Mastriano told a crowd Friday night at an Allentown firehouse.

"Rebbie and I were lined up to ride off into a sunset for a very comfortable retirement and a sweet high-paying job," he added.

Janice Todaro, who attended the Mastriano rally at the American Legion and lives nearby, said she was impressed.

"He just wants to make it a great state again," said Todaro, who, like several others interviewed at both Mastriano events, said her main concern is out-of-control crime. "It's a shame what's happening in Philly. These innocent kids."

Linda Case agreed. Outside the American Legion, she said she was supporting Mastriano because she wants a law-and-order governor. Her son survived a close-range shooting in Emmaus last year.

"What is happening to our police across the country? Where is the respect? Who is going to patrol the streets?" said Case, who lives in nearby Palmer Township. "I'm angry. We need to see things change."

Mastriano frequently refers to crime in Philadelphia, recently mentioning the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl on her way to school last week, and Wawa's decision to close two stores in the city.

"That's simply life under Josh Shapiro," he said.

Here, too, however, Shapiro appears to have outflanked him.

Philadelphia's police union has endorsed the Democrat for governor.

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(Philadelphia Inquirer staff writers Jonathan Tamari and Abraham Gutman contributed to this reporter.)

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