Pennsylvania Republicans tried to stop Doug Mastriano. But first they followed him

Andrew Seidman
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

Doug Mastriano first burst onto the national scene on Nov. 25, 2020, when he led a hearing in Gettysburg during which aggrieved Republican voters, Rudy Giuliani, and former President Donald Trump himself aired baseless allegations of fraud in the presidential election.

But Mastriano, a GOP state senator from Franklin County, couldn’t have pulled that off by himself: A colleague, State Sen. Dave Argall, let Mastriano use the panel he chaired to host the hearing.

It was a harbinger of things to come.

For weeks leading up to Mastriano’s victory Tuesday in the Republican primary for Pennsylvania governor, GOP insiders scrambled to halt his rise, pointed fingers, and generally scratched their heads over how the party let a candidate they see as unelectable in November become the nominee.

But Mastriano didn’t stage a hostile takeover of the Pennsylvania GOP so much as the party — lawmakers, activists, and candidates — followed his lead.

Instead of denouncing or rebutting Mastriano’s conspiracy theories, Republican leaders repeatedly cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, sometimes justifying their actions by pointing to the very voter concerns they had helped fan.

Even now, lawmakers and party officials who oppose his candidacy don’t denounce Mastriano or his ideas — they simply argue he can’t win a general election. In TV ads, a dark-money group attacking Mastriano criticized him for not going far enough to help Trump — saying he failed to investigate the election and noting his vote for the law that expanded mail voting.

“The Republican Party is the Mastriano-Trump party in Pennsylvania. And it’s not just a small fringe of people that are following that vision,” said Ethan Demme, a former Lancaster GOP official who left the party after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack and is now Pennsylvania chair for the third-party Serve America Movement.

While majorities of Democrats (82%) and independents (59%) say they are confident the results of Pennsylvania’s 2020 election “accurately reflected” the vote, just 28% of Republicans share that confidence, according to a Muhlenberg College poll in January.

“It’s fair to say that it festered,” former U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, a Republican who voted for Joe Biden, said of the GOP’s muted response to Mastriano. “Many were concerned, but many didn’t do enough publicly to push back. Privately, I think there was a lot of hand wringing and discomfort. What good is that? Too many of them … are too fearful of antagonizing some of the fringe elements of the base.”

Asked Monday about the late Republican push to stop him, Mastriano told the radio host Wendy Bell: “They’re afraid of losing power and influence, because I report to the people.”

While Mastriano promoted the most fringe ideas – tweeting in November 2020 that the state legislature could nullify the will of the voters — others embraced the spirit of the cause.

Mastriano was the only prominent Pennsylvania state lawmaker who attended the rally that preceded the Capitol attack. But even after a pro-Trump mob stormed the building, eight of the state’s nine Republican U.S. House members voted not to certify Biden’s Pennsylvania victory.

Scores of state lawmakers signed letters urging Congress to delay certification. Instead of breaking with Trump, the state GOP rebuked Republican Sen. Pat Toomey over his vote to convict the former president at his second impeachment trial.

Pennsylvania State Senator Doug Mastriano (R - Franklin County) speaks during the ''Medical Freedom Rally'' on the steps of the Pennsylvania State Capitol, on Nov. 9, 2021, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. (Paul Weaver/Zuma Press/TNS)

And when Trump and his allies turned their focus last year toward what they called “forensic audits” of the election in key swing states, Mastriano again led the way in Pennsylvania as Republican leaders followed.

Last June, Mastriano traveled to Arizona to get a firsthand look at the widely discredited partisan review there led by a company called Cyber Ninjas that had no prior experience auditing elections. That summer, Mastriano sent letters to three counties — including York and Philadelphia — demanding they turn over essentially all election-related materials.

The counties refused to cooperate. Jake Corman, the Senate President pro tempore, stripped Mastriano of his committee chairmanship. But Corman didn’t take issue with Mastriano’s idea — rather, the Senate leader took control of the inquiry for himself. As Corman prepared for his own run for governor, he and fellow Senate Republicans subpoenaed Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration for records on all 9 million registered Pennsylvania voters, including private information like the last four digits of Social Security numbers.

Kim Ward, the Senate majority leader, defended the subpoena by saying the Wolf administration had already granted third parties access to the voter registry. But the available evidence showed that wasn’t true.

That investigation is ongoing amid litigation, as Republicans are trying to gain access to voting machines in rural Fulton County — where Mastriano himself had arranged for a contractor to conduct a probe. The earlier review was funded by former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell’s nonprofit. Mastriano says that as governor he would end contracts with all “compromised” voting machine companies.

There is no evidence any machines in Pennsylvania were tampered with in the 2020 election.

“Time and time again we’ve seen Doug Mastriano put in a position of leadership that would essentially give him a platform to voice his ideas,” said Khalif Ali, head of the Pennsylvania chapter of Common Cause, which sued to block the investigation.

On the campaign trail, Mastriano may be the only gubernatorial candidate who attended a forum with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO and prominent election conspiracist.

But he’s hardly been alone among GOP candidates in casting doubt on the 2020 election.

Former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain’s first big splash in the governor’s race came last summer, when he wrote a letter to Trump suggesting that former U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr had stymied his efforts to investigate voter fraud. That prompted Barr to call McSwain a liar who was trying to gain Trump’s favor.

Trump used the letter as further evidence the election was tainted — but ended up lashing out at McSwain last month anyway, calling him a “coward” for not prosecuting fraud.

Dave White, a businessman and former Delaware County councilman also running for governor, ran TV ads blasting “corrupt mail-in voting” and echoing Trump’s baseless attacks on McSwain.

And former U.S. Rep Lou Barletta — who emerged in the last week of the race as the GOP establishment’s last best chance to stop Mastriano — frequently argued, incorrectly, that mail ballots were ripe for fraud. Barletta had served as a so-called alternate elector in 2020, as Trump’s allies sought to lay the groundwork to overturn the results in swing states.

Each of the major candidates campaigned on repealing the 2019 state law that authorized no-excuse absentee ballots, arguing that the Wolf administration had bungled its implementation.

And before Corman withdrew from the race and endorsed Barletta, he traveled to Trump’s Mar-a-lago resort in Florida for a screening of the election conspiracy documentary "2000 Mules," which falsely claims a vast ballot harvesting operation swung the election for Biden.

“It’s a movie every American should see,” Corman said on Twitter.

In the Senate race, Trump’s endorsed candidate Mehmet Oz drew praise from the former president for saying the party can’t move past the 2020 election. Most of the candidates — except for real estate developer Jeff Bartos — wouldn’t acknowledge Biden as the legitimate winner.

And as voters got sick of negative TV ads paid for by Oz and fellow millionaire Senate candidate David McCormick, they gave a serious look at Kathy Barnette, who had established her MAGA bona fides with grassroots activists by hunting for voter fraud in the aftermath of her landslide loss in a 2020 U.S. House race.

Dent is holding out hope that the party might change course after November, when he and other Republicans expect Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro to easily beat Mastriano.

As Dent put it: “Nothing will refocus the mind better than defeat.”

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