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‘We Have the Power of God’: Trump-Endorsed State Senator Wins Pennsylvania GOP Nomination for Governor

The result highlights extremist tendencies growing within the Republican Party, which may boost the general election prospects for Attorney General Josh Shapiro who won the Democratic nomination for governor.

Pa. Sen. Doug Mastriano greets his supporters at his watch party held at The Orchards in Chambersburg on May 17, 2022.
Joe Hermitt/ TNS
Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano took 45 percent of the vote in a crowded Republican race for the gubernatorial nomination, highlighting a hard right turn within the party.

Mastriano shaped his public image around being a Christian nationalist, 2020 election denier and QAnon-adjacent. A more mainstream Democratic candidate, Josh Shapiro, running unopposed, officially earned the Pennsylvania gubernatorial primary.

The question will be whether Mastriano can reassemble Donald Trump’s entire coalition in November. Abortion will be a huge rallying point for him, due to the imperiled future of Roe v. Wade. He’s called it his No. 1 issue.

“It looks like he is embodying the religious right, Trump nationalism, and the anti-democratic and full-on conspiracy-embracing dimensions of the Republican electorate,” says Lara Putnam, a historian with University of Pittsburgh.

“A vanilla Republican candidate would have a long runway with a lot of other persuadable voters," says Putnam, who studies Trump-era political movements. "But I don’t see any indication that he wants to pivot to the center on these existential issues.”

Establishment and conservative leaders in the state were unable to cohere around any one candidate in the gubernatorial primary. Big money donors, building trades unions, traditional power brokers and some Trump acolytes divided themselves among different candidates. That left an opening for Mastriano, a Christian nationalist first-term state senator, who made his name fighting against COVID-19 protections and championing the lie that Trump won the 2020 election.

Mastriano went further still. He attended the Jan. 6 insurrection — although he insists he did not participate in the sacking of the Capitol — and he’s been subpoenaed by the congressional committee investigating the incident. Last month he spoke at a conference organized by QAnon believers, who inveighed against a “global satanic blood cult” while embracing other conspiracy theories that circulate widely in those circles.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, other Republicans tried to unite to defeat him. But the only prominent candidate to drop out was state Senate President Jake Corman. Most of the other candidates refused. Seeing a winner, Trump endorsed Mastriano roughly 72 hours before the primary.

“It's hard to do the coalescing part [of the GOP’s anti-Mastriano plan], if everyone isn’t coalescing,” says Christopher Nicholas, a Republican consultant who was working for candidate Charlie Gerow. “It means a governor's race at the beginning that leans towards Josh Shapiro. It remains to be seen if Mastriano can kick his campaign into a different gear for a general election than a primary one.”

There was little distinction among the candidates’ policy positions. All of them agreed that they would sign laws to essentially ban abortion, with Mastriano and businessman David White saying they wouldn’t allow for exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. At the final debate, they all agreed to sign a law that would allow concealed carry of firearms without a permit and that they would overturn a bipartisan election law that allows mail-in voting in Pennsylvania.

But many observers see Mastriano as a unique threat to democracy, given his embrace of Trump’s election lies and broader skepticism of the democratic legitimacy of his foes. In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of state, who in turns certifies the state’s electors. Mastriano has already promoted the state Legislature appointing electors against the will of the public. There are fears that as governor he could overturn an election that didn’t go his party's way.

“When it comes to the procedures of the presidential election, the stakes are huge,” says Putnam. “The governor with the assembly has huge say over how voting is carried out. Everything he has pushed forward makes it clear he believes Democrats cannot fairly win elections.”

For their part, many GOP leaders are afraid that Mastriano could be easier to defeat in the general election. Although Republicans have never failed to take the governor’s mansion after a Democratic incumbent is term limited out, Attorney General Josh Shapiro could break their streak.

Josh Shapiro greets voters after a Get-Out-the-Vote rally for other party candidates in Doylestown May 15, 2022.
The only candidate in the Democratic primary, Shapiro approaches the general election with a massive war chest and a united party behind him. He hasn’t suffered many attacks yet and his camp believes Mastriano will have difficulty landing damaging blows against Shapiro, who is a moderate with strong law enforcement credentials. Shapiro also got more votes than the presidential candidates of his party in 2016 and 2020, something his team points to as a good sign in a year that is expected to go badly for Democrats.

“[Mastriano] has to run his race and if it's going to be about how Trump won, I think [the] Josh Shapiro ticket will overcome that with a real plan for the state of Pennsylvania,” says Maurice Floyd, a Philadelphia political consultant working for the Shapiro campaign. “People want to hear answers and vision, not about the 2020 election.”

Shapiro embraced the idea that Mastriano would be an easier opponent in November and ran commercials that could have doubled as ads for his now-opponent. But there are plentiful examples of Democratic candidates who thought they could beat far right opponents, and soon learned otherwise.

Shapiro tested positive for coronavirus on primary election eve. He was reportedly isolating on election day. Mastriano has refused to talk with the media throughout the election. After his victory, he noted that William Penn had been run out of England by "the media."
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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