PITTSBURGH — Josh Shapiro is in as good of a position as any Democrat running in a critical swing-state race. But he is not leaving anything up to chance.
Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, enjoys a substantial and widening lead in the polls over his GOP opponent, Republican Doug Mastriano. Still, Shapiro is spending the last week of the campaign on a barnstorming six-day, 25-stop bus tour of the state, where he is warning voters about how much is on the line in his battle against the "uniquely dangerous" Mastriano, a state senator who was outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, wants to overhaul Pennsylvania elections and has been accused of elevating antisemitism.
NBC News joined Shapiro for the first leg of his statewide bus tour on Tuesday, during which he delivered four campaign speeches across western Pennsylvania. Zeroing in on his opponent, Shapiro said Mastriano’s rhetoric is making Pennsylvanians "less safe."
Mastriano "is by far the most extreme and dangerous person to ever run for public office in Pennsylvania," Shapiro told a small group of reporters aboard his bus. "And I think he poses a clear and present danger to democracy, our freedom and our safety."
Shapiro, 49, is far from the only candidate in key swing states making the case to voters that the future of democracy is on the line this fall, though he appears among those best positioned for success. The state's attorney general, Shapiro has seen his poll numbers exceed those of John Fetterman, the state's lieutenant governor and Democratic Senate nominee, and other Democrats in key races across other battleground states in a cycle that looks promising for the GOP.
Part of this can be attributed to Mastriano's struggles to expand his coalition outside of his base and a lack of resources to get out his message. Polling shows Shapiro winning over a small but sizable number of Republicans, and ticket-splitters backing Shapiro and Mehmet Oz, Fetterman's Republican opponent for Senate, are weighing heavily on the Pennsylvania races. But his supporters paint a fuller picture of why Shapiro, a former state representative and county commissioner who outperformed Democratic presidential nominees Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden in his 2016 and 2020 runs, has emerged as a rare breakout star for Democrats this cycle.
At stops along the route, supporters described Shapiro as a dynamic speaker and hard-nosed campaigner who is delivering the right message at the right time: talking up boosting police and education spending and prioritizing protecting individual freedoms and democracy, all while highlighting his own record to enhance his credibility.
Some supporters even said they could one day see Shapiro running for president, a suggestion he batted away among reporters.
Kathy O’Neil, 68, told NBC News at a campaign stop in Erie that she felt Shapiro has "done so much for us." His support from law enforcement, including the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association and Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police — two groups that have endorsed Oz in the Senate race — stood out to her, too.
"He’s a champion of the people in Pennsylvania," she said. "I can’t say anything negative about him. But you can’t, unfortunately, say that about the Democrats [at large]. I mean, I’m a Democrat. But he’s run a great campaign. Look at all he’s done. He didn’t come out of nowhere."
At each stop, Shapiro talked up his plans should he win, which include expanding public education funding and adding mental health counselors and more vocational tech opportunities in schools, hiring 2,000 police officers and boosting green energy jobs. He highlighted his achievements in office, which include negotiating an agreement between western Pennsylvania’s largest health care and health insurance providers, staving off disruptions for people across the region, and advancing an investigation that found 1,000 Pennsylvania children had been abused by the Roman Catholic Church. (Mastriano, 58, has said Shapiro has a “grudge” against the church, while some Catholic organizations believe Shapiro went too far).
"There is no fight too big, no mountain too high to climb," Shapiro said in Beaver. "We will take on any and all comers, including Doug Mastriano. And this guy is super dangerous, really extreme and must be defeated."
Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., told NBC News ahead of Shapiro’s speech in Beaver that the campaign against Mastriano is "a different race than many," making it hard to draw out too many lessons for Democrats in other races — "except to say that Josh spent a very long time actually doing a great job as a public servant."
"When we look at who we are nominating for these big races, what personal record do they have separate and apart from whatever kind of social media cache they may have?" said Lamb, who lost to Fetterman in the Senate primary. "It could be an important lesson."
To take on Shapiro, Mastriano has struggled greatly to raise money and draw financial support from outside Republican groups to boost his campaign. Retiring Sen. Pat Toomey, also a Republican, has not endorsed his candidacy, while Oz has kept Mastriano at arm's length. Shapiro has been able to gain support from some wary Republicans who feel Mastriano is too extreme and believe Shapiro to be more of a moderate Democrat.
"He’s one of those unique candidates where people tend to project their own values and ideology onto him," said Mike Mikus, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist. "If you’re a moderate Democrat, you think he’s a moderate. If you’re a progressive, you think he’s a progressive."
But Shapiro, as Mikus said, has also benefited from investing time in places across the state, including smaller and more Republican-leaning counties, during his tenure as attorney general. During a campaign stop in Clarion, Shapiro pledged to advocate for "forgotten" parts of the state.
"That’s why he’s just uniquely strong," Mikus said. "I mean, he may be the strongest candidate I’ve seen for governor perhaps in my lifetime."
Speaking on his campaign bus, Shapiro described himself as a pragmatist.
"We have to find ways to get to working together again," he said. "If you want to label that as moderate or whatever word you used, I mean, you can choose whatever label you want for me. I just think it’s about pragmatism."
His opponent has charted a different path, rising through the pandemic and aftermath of the 2020 election to lead Pennsylvania’s far right and emerge from a deep Republican primary field that failed to coalesce around any single alternative.
Through his campaign, Mastriano has suggested he could "decertify every machine in the state with the stroke of a pen via the secretary of state," whom the governor appoints, in addition to saying he could make every Pennsylvania voter have to re-register. He has also compared abortion to murder and has advocated for strict restrictions on the procedure. He says his views are irrelevant on abortion because he can only sign whatever the Legislature passes, but a Mastriano win would in all likelihood provide Republicans with unified control over Harrisburg, allowing them to pass new restrictions.
In recent weeks, allegations of antisemitism have taken on more prominence in the race. This summer, Mastriano came under scrutiny for a campaign payment to the far-right social media site Gab. The site’s founder has called for an exclusively Christian conservative movement, while the alleged assailant who killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 posted antisemitic rants to Gab prior to the shooting. After the Gab payment was uncovered, Mastriano posted a statement saying, "I reject anti-Semitism in any form."
But Mastriano later drew scrutiny for saying the Jewish day school that Shapiro, an observant Jew, had attended was “privileged, exclusive, elite.” A top campaign adviser called Shapiro "at best a secular Jew," while Mastriano’s wife, Rebbie, responded to the allegations of antisemitism last month by saying, "As a family we so much love Israel, in fact, I’m going to say we probably love Israel more than a lot of Jews do."
Amid his own tour across the state during the final week, Mastriano challenged Shapiro at a rally in suburban Pittsburgh to "stare me in the eyes and call me an antisemite."
"How do you respond to somebody who says you’re antisemitic?" Mastriano later added. "You’re on the defense right away. There’s no way you can win."
Mastriano’s campaign against Shapiro is threefold — tying him closely to Covid shutdown orders that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration enacted early in the pandemic; blaming Shapiro for rising crime in the state — saying Wednesday that the state attorney general "has blood on his hands" and "doesn’t care about anything but his own political ambition" — and putting Shapiro on the side of culture war issues that infuriate conservatives.
"Josh Shapiro stands for all that is wrong with the Democrat Party," Mastriano said. "He is the face of elitism. He is the face of entitlement. He is the face of political correctness."
Where the two campaigns really contrast, though, is on how they talk about freedom. At each of Shapiro's stops, he sought to compare his vision for freedom with Mastriano’s, whose campaign slogan is "Walk as Free People" (which Mastriano has said is based on biblical text).
Along the bus tour, Shapiro framed Mastriano as someone who would curtail individual freedom in the state — whether it be by restricting abortion, limiting voting rights or making it harder to form a union by signing a "right-to-work" law.
"Real freedom comes in a commonwealth where we respect everyone, no matter what you look like or where you come from, who you love or who you pray to," Shapiro said in Clarion. "That’s real freedom."
"This is about our democracy," he added later. "This is about our fundamental freedoms."