Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, has come under fire from critics for ties to a right-wing social media platform whose founder has said there is no room for Jews, atheists and others in the conservative movement.
Mastriano, a state senator backed by former President Donald Trump, paid Gab $5,000 in April for "advertising consulting," state campaign finance records showed.
Democrats and Republicans alike have criticized Mastriano for his association with Gab, the social media platform on which a gunman who killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 posted his antisemitic rants.
Some users of Gab, which was founded by Andrew Torba in 2016, contemplated plans on the platform to disrupt the ascertainment of President Joe Biden's victory on Jan. 6, 2021. Torba has said his aim is to foster a "Christian nationalist" society, he has called for the conservative movement to be "exclusively Christian," and he frequently espouses antisemitic views.
"Andrew Torba is one of the most toxic people in public life right now," Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, which describes Gab as a "haven for extremists" and "conspiracy theorists," said Tuesday on MSNBC. "Elected officials who engage in this kind of rhetoric aren't just flirting with fascism — they are bringing it to the forefront of their political argument."
Mastriano's campaign did not immediately answer a request for comment Thursday afternoon. Mastriano responded to the criticism Thursday evening on Twitter, saying Torba "doesn't speak for me or my campaign." He also appeared to have deleted his Gab account, which was no longer visible on the platform.
"I reject anti-Semitism in any form," he wrote. "Recent smears by the Democrats and the media are blatant attempts to distract Pennsylvanians from suffering inflicted by Democrat policies.
"While extremist speech is an unfortunate but inevitable cost of living in a free society, extremist policies are not," he added, criticizing his Democratic opponent, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
Mastriano’s connection to Gab was highlighted earlier this month by the left-wing media watchdog Media Matters, which first discovered the $5,000 payment. Torba has said he is not a consultant for Mastriano’s campaign, merely that Mastriano paid for advertising on the site. HuffPost reported soon after the Media Matters revelation that newly created accounts on Gab automatically followed Mastriano — one of seven accounts that all new users were initially signed up to follow.
In his statement, Mastriano did not address the purpose of his campaign expenditure on Gab nor why he is reportedly an automatic follow for new accounts on the platform.
Meanwhile, in hitting back at critics this week while seeking to define the modern right as a solely Christian venture, Torba has drawn Mastriano additional scrutiny.
"We have seen the fruits — or lack thereof — of our nation being led by Godless pagans, nonbelievers, Jews, and fake Christians-in-name-only," he said in a statement Wednesday. "If we are going to build a Christian movement it must be exclusively Christian and we can't be afraid to say that out loud. We are all sinners saved by Grace, but if you do not repent and believe in Jesus Christ then you do not share our Biblical worldview and cannot participate in any meaningful position of authority in the movement. It's just that simple."
In a video responding to a segment Monday from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, Torba said of the right: "This is a Christian movement — full stop."
"So no, we don't want people who are atheists," he said. "We don't want people who are Jewish. So why is that difficult to understand? They are so mad that I said this, right? They're so mad that I said that we don't want people who aren't Christian in a Christian movement. Why is that complicated? Why is that so controversial?”
"We don't want people who are Jewish," he said later in the 24-minute video. "This is an explicitly Christian movement because this is an explicitly Christian country. Now, we're not saying that we're going to deport all these people. Remember, you're free to stay here, right? You're not going to be forced to convert or anything like this, but you're going to enjoy … the fruits of living in a Christian society under Christian laws."
Torba said his goal is "to try a Christian nationalist movement across the entire globe." In a separate video, he responded to Greenblatt's MSNBC interview by telling Jews that "we're not going to listen to 2%,” adding, “You represent 2% of the country, OK?"
Reached for comment, Torba pointed to a statement on Gab in which he said his words were not representative of Mastriano's campaign.
"I stand by everything I have said about Christian Nationalism as a movement being explicitly Christian," he said in the statement. "This should be obvious by the name. Others are certainly welcome to support the movement and enjoy the fruits of Christian leadership and culture, but we need candidates, leaders, thinkers, influencers, culture warriors, and builders who believe in and follow Jesus Christ. Otherwise it wouldn’t be Christian Nationalism.
"If you are ethnically Jewish and call Jesus your Savior then you are my brother or sister," he added. "This isn’t a racial issue."
Mastriano's primary victory this year shocked some of the Republican establishment in Pennsylvania, who failed in a last-ditch effort to coalesce around another contender. His campaign message wove together Christian nationalism, election denialism and a rejection of Covid mitigation policies.
Leading the effort to overturn the 2020 election in his state, Mastriano was outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and was intimately involved in the effort to convene fake slates of electors in hope of stopping Biden from taking office.
In his May victory address, Mastriano condemned what he saw as "bigotry" against Christians, saying his supporters were "under siege" from opponents and members of the media who do not "like groups of us who believe certain things, and they paint us in these awful descriptives."
Last week, Shapiro and Pittsburgh lawmakers who represent the area around the Tree of Life synagogue condemned Mastriano's ties to Gab.
Speaking to NBC News, Shapiro, who is Jewish, said Mastriano's use of Gab should be looked at not under the lens of religion, but extremism.
"The fact that he even goes on that website, let alone pays to recruit supporters and volunteers there, shows just how extreme and dangerous he is," Shapiro said.
Mastriano is "someone who I believe is not reflecting where most good people of faith are in this commonwealth," Shapiro added, describing himself as "deeply religious." "His extremism is really dangerous."
In addition, Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told The Philadelphia Inquirer last week: "We strongly urge Doug Mastriano to end his association with Gab, a social network rightly seen by Jewish Americans as a cesspool of bigotry and antisemitism."
In a video The Jerusalem Post reported on this week, Torba said his "policy is not to conduct interviews with reporters who aren't Christian or with outlets who aren't Christian, and Doug has a very similar media strategy where he does not do interviews with these people."
He also lamented "the establishment" that he said promotes Jewish conservative commentators like Dave Rubin and Ben Shapiro.
"These people aren't conservative," he said. "They're not Christian. They don't share our values. They have inverted values from us as Christians. So don't fall for the bait of Populism Inc., don't fall for the bait of this pseudo-conservatism, big-tent nonsense."
Mastriano is not the only candidate who has paid to advertise on Gab.
As Torba noted in his video Wednesday, Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee for the Senate in Georgia, has run ads on his platform. Reps. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., and Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., have, as well.
It read: "Proud Christian Nationalist."