Sep 9, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Trumpier than Trump

Pennsylvania GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano speaks at a rally with former President Donald Trump just behind him.
Photo: Michelle Gustafson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Some GOP candidates are softening their rhetoric and scrubbing their campaign websites of hardline positions as the midterms get closer. But Doug Mastriano is running a much different playbook in the Pennsylvania governor's race, one of the most important contests in the nation.

Driving the news: He has doubled down on false claims about the 2020 election. He's ghosting the mainstream media and spending nothing on TV advertising, relying instead on Facebook livestreams and far-right media.

  • He has a small staff largely unknown to Pennsylvania politicos. And he may tap a woman who has described QAnon as "a very valuable resource" to be the state's top election official.

Why it matters: Mastriano, who was at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, is a new model of ultra-MAGA candidate.

  • If Mastriano achieves an unlikely victory in November, he would control the election machinery of a key battleground state in 2024.

Mastriano completely avoids the mainstream media. He rarely appears even on Fox News. When Mastriano does do interviews, it's almost entirely with far-right personalities like Steve Bannon. Until recently, Mastriano refused to even allow mainstream news reporters into his events.

  • His campaign did not respond to an Axios request for comment on this story.

Mastriano appears to have very little money. His opponent, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, has already committed around $35 million to TV advertising, including a $16.9 million for the fall. Mastriano has so far reserved zero dollars in fall advertising spending, according to a Pennsylvania operative closely monitoring campaign advertising data.

Instead, Mastriano has built an organic grassroots following through his use of Facebook.

  • As the New York Times documented in detail, Mastriano, a state senator, started live streaming on Facebook during the early weeks and months of the pandemic in 2020.
  • He developed a loyal following for his anti-lockdown messages and grew that following further in the aftermath of the 2020 election, when he became one of the most aggressive leaders of the movement to overturn Joe Biden's victory.
  • The MAGA base loves Mastriano. At Saturday night's Trump rally, Mastriano connected powerfully. His speech was frequently interrupted by roars from the crowd.

Mastriano has made no apparent effort to pivot to the center — a common tactic for candidates as they end their primaries and face a broader electorate.

  • It's illuminating to compare the Mastriano campaign to the actions of Blake Masters — the Trump-endorsed GOP nominee for the Arizona senate race. After Masters won his primary, his campaign website was edited to water down the section on abortion. His claim that the 2020 election was stolen vanished.
  • Mastriano, by contrast, expanded his website's section on "election integrity" after winning his primary. He has also talked about how election is crucial because he gets to choose the Secretary of State, who will oversee Pennsylvania's election in 2024.

Mastriano has said he's already chosen this person, and let slip that it's a "her." Pennsylvania operatives following the race closely speculate he's going to pick Toni Shuppe, co-founder and CEO of Audit The Vote PA, who claims the 2020 election was stolen from former President Trump.

Mastriano's staff is largely unknown in Pennsylvania political circles. The only member of his team who is nationally known is legal adviser Jenna Ellis — who, alongside Sidney Powell, tried to help Trump overturn the 2020 election.

  • Mastriano's broader orbit has raised eyebrows not only in GOP establishment circles but even in typically desensitized sections of Trumpworld. He has reportedly surrounded himself with "a non-professional, armed security team whose members include at least one person with direct ties to a militia group [the Oath Keepers]."

Another example of his associations that have caused Republicans to flinch: Mastriano has done a campaign rally with Julie Green, a self-styled prophet, whose pronouncements defy adjectival description. Here, for example, is what Green what Green had to say about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

  • "Her days are coming to an end, and she will not last until the 2022 midterm elections. She will be visited by the angel of death for her crimes against my nation. And the blood is dripping from her hands. She loves to drink the little children’s blood. By drinking this blood, they believe they will receive a longer life. Yes, a true witch she really is. She was part of sacrificing the children to Baal. She loved murdering for him. Well, now she will pay the ultimate price with her life. And her life is now over for the facts against you, and the babies she killed along with giving money from her bills to help with trafficking the children and of course to finance Epstein island and that lifestyle."

Axios' Lachlan Markay contributed to this report.

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