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Far-right election denier Mastriano wins GOP race for governor in Pennsylvania

Mastriano, who promotes Trump's claims of a stolen 2020 election, will face state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who ran unopposed for the Democratic nomination.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, a far-right Republican who built a large following seeking to overturn President Joe Biden’s win in Pennsylvania, is the GOP nominee for governor, NBC News projected Tuesday.

After 10:30 p.m. ET, Mastriano led his rivals by more than 20 points. He'll face Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general, who ran unopposed, in November.

Should Mastriano, who received former President Donald Trump's last-minute backing Saturday, prevail in the general election, he would be able to appoint a secretary of state to oversee elections. He has pledged that his choice would “reset” the state’s voter rolls so everyone would “have to re-register.”

Mastriano's winning campaign message wove together Christian nationalism, election denialism and a rejection of Covid mitigation policies. A number of Republicans have expressed concern that he is too extreme to beat Shapiro in November, with some state GOP leaders working behind the scenes in the past week to consolidate a large field around another candidate in hope of uniting the non-Mastriano vote.

In a speech at his election night rally, Mastriano said his campaign "has no place for hate, bigotry and intolerance," adding that his movement is "under siege" from opponents and members of the media who don't "like groups of us who believe certain things, and they paint us in these awful descriptives."

“Everyone in this room can believe whatever they want, and they should not be mocked for that," he said. "And that includes us on the Republican side. And I will not stand for you mocking, you know, me, my wife, my family or what we believe or anyone in this room here. This is America."

State Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and former Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Pa., bowed out of the race and endorsed former Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa. Other contenders, including businessman Dave White and former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, remained in the race.

Image:
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democratic candidate for governor, speaks with members of the media in Philadelphia on April 5.Matt Rourke / AP file

“It’s just one of those things where it seems very clear that there’s two candidates, that the polls have been very consistent on who the candidates are,” David La Torre, a former Corman adviser who supported Barletta after Corman ended his candidacy, said before the polls closed. “But you know, for some reason, people make their own decisions to stay in races, despite the math.”

Mastriano suggested at a rally this month that his administration would be so far to the right as to make other conservative governors, like Florida’s Ron DeSantis, look as if they were middle of the road. 

“You guys think Ron DeSantis is good? Amateur,” Mastriano cracked, adding: “We love you, Ron, but this is Pennsylvania. This is where the light of liberty was set in 1776, where this nation was born.”

Dave Ball, the chairman of the Washington County GOP, said that even just a couple months ago, he would have judged Mastriano as “basically a non-entity.”

“But Barletta and White and McSwain and the rest of the people that were in the governor’s group, nobody established control,” he said. “And when you have no leader, there’s a void, and somebody is going to fill that void.”

Mastriano, a longtime Army colonel, has made headlines for blocking reporters, including from NBC News, from covering his events. An NBC News reporter sought to attend a rally this month that was advertised online, only to be told by a campaign aide that “we already have adequate coverage” and “are taken care of.” At the event, a security guard demanded that the reporter leave, saying the event was “private.” 

The rally was streamed on one of Mastriano’s Facebook pages — where he has amassed a following of hundreds of thousands that dwarfed those of his competitors. The campaign aide who told NBC News it couldn't cover the rally was Grant Clarkson, who NBC News subsequently reported was present on restricted grounds at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He has denied entering the Capitol.

Mastriano himself was outside the Capitol to protest Trump’s loss before a pro-Trump mob ransacked the building and sent lawmakers scrambling in hope of delaying the count of Electoral College votes ascertaining Biden’s win. He has said he left the Capitol before the riot. Video appears to show Mastriano passing police barricades on the north side of the Capitol right after they were breached.

Meanwhile, his campaign paid to bus people to Washington for the rally that preceded the riot, and he was subpoenaed by the House Jan. 6 committee this year over his efforts to send alternate electors to Congress.

All of that enhanced Mastriano's credibility with Republicans who rejected Biden’s win — as well as gave him a national platform to pursue his cause.

"Two years ago it seemed unthinkable that Americans would storm our Capitol building ... to try to overturn our democracy; today, someone who helped organize January 6 became the Republican nominee for Governor in perhaps the most central swing state in the nation by running a campaign virtually promising to overturn our democracy from within," Ian Bassin, a co-founder and the executive director of Protect Democracy, a nonprofit voting rights and democracy advocacy group, said in a statement. "Anyone who still doesn’t see how the U.S. Republic may not make it to its 250th birthday needs to open their eyes.”

Mastriano began to build a substantial lead over the deep field of contenders within the last month and then expanded on it over the weekend after he won Trump’s endorsement. Last month, Trump waded into the primary by telling voters not to vote for McSwain.

At an event for Barletta on Saturday, former Rep. Tom Marino, R-Pa., asked, “Where in the hell is the loyalty?” He noted that he and Barletta, whom he is backing, were the first House members to publicly support Trump’s candidacy in his first campaign.

“I am not going to get behind anyone who at this point has his, Mr. Trump’s, endorsement,” Marino said.

Marino’s frustration signals the difficulties Mastriano may face in uniting Republicans.

“It’s going to be difficult to unite the party,” said La Torre, who said he won't support Mastriano. “No. 1, I’m not sure Mastriano wants to unite. It’s his way or the highway. And that’s no way to develop a large Republican tent in Pennsylvania.”

Mastriano may have also been boosted when no candidate received an endorsement from the state party — marking the first time in more than four decades it hadn't backed a candidate for governor — a decision Mastriano praised in a recent interview with Newsmax.

Before the vote, Shapiro promoted Mastriano in a statewide ad saying a victory for Mastriano would be “a win for what Donald Trump stands for.”

Shapiro told NBC News he did so because Mastriano was likely to win and he wanted to get a head start on the general election campaign.

In a statement after Mastriano's win, Shapiro called him "a dangerous extremist who wants to take away our freedoms."

"The contrast in this election could not be clearer — Doug Mastriano wants to ban abortion without exceptions, restrict the right to vote and spread conspiracy theories, and destroy the union way of life for hard working Pennsylvanians," he said. "Mastriano wants to dictate how Pennsylvanians live their lives — that’s not freedom."

For all of his bona fides with the far right, Mastriano has taken heat from his right flank over his 2019 vote for a bill that expanded mail-in voting in Pennsylvania.

The measure came under closer scrutiny after Biden narrowly won the state, and Mastriano and other GOP legislators who supported it now say Democrats “hijacked” the program. He also faced criticism over his advocacy early in the Covid pandemic for the state to roll back privacy protections and disclose information about people who contracted the coronavirus.

In a statement after Mastriano's win, Dave Rexrode, the executive director of the Republican Governors Association, blasted Shapiro and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, adding that the association "remains committed to engaging in competitive gubernatorial contests where our support can have an impact in defending our incumbents and expanding our majority this year.”

Ball said that as a Republican official, he is responsible for getting Republicans elected no matter the circumstances.

"Whoever the nominee is, is our favorite candidate," he said. "And we have to approach it that way. If Mastriano is the gubernatorial candidate, then he is our favorite candidate, because the alternative is Shapiro. That’s what you have to convince people of.”