Doug Mastriano is irate that he is being called an extremist.
“I’m really sick and tired of it,” the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania governor said in an interview last week with conservative comedian and pundit Ben Stein.
With two months until voters go to the polls, Mastriano — a 54-year-old state senator from southern Pennsylvania — is trailing state Attorney General Josh Shapiro by 7 points in the FiveThirtyEight polling average. Mastriano has fallen behind over the past month as it came to light that he had a relationship with the social media website Gab, an online incubator of antisemitism and bigotry.
Mastriano has distanced himself from Gab and he says he should not be judged by who he associates with, but rather by his own words and actions.
To his supporters, Mastriano is not all that complicated. They see him as a patriotic combat veteran and retired military officer who has a PhD in history and who speaks plainly and often about his Christian faith. He is affable and casts himself as a reluctant politician. He laughs a lot and rarely raises his voice.
A campaign digital ad shows Mastriano bear-hugging a child, a huge smile on his face, with the words “It’s about love, hope, freedom, life, and a future for our children.”
His critics paint him as a fringe figure. One of his GOP rivals said he “comes across as a cult guy.”
The argument against Mastriano begins with his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results and his presence at the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. His history of promoting former President Donald Trump’s election lies has extra significance in Pennsylvania, a swing state where governors appoint their own secretaries of state.
Democracy advocates of all stripes worry that a Gov. Mastriano could undermine the 2024 election by refusing to recognize legitimate results based on more unproved or even debunked claims of fraud, and that he might even support an effort to send an alternate slate of fake electors to Congress in a contested election.
But a broader critique of Mastriano is from those who say he is a religious extremist who believes America should be governed by Christian laws, akin to a theocracy. The academic term for this is Christian nationalism.
Mastriano does not talk about theocracy, though he has said the separation of church and state is a “myth.” And he has rejected the Christian nationalist label as recently as a year ago, unlike Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has embraced the term and called on other Republicans to do so. The Mastriano campaign did not respond to a question about whether he still rejects the label.
Mastriano does talk about his Christian faith in more explicit terms than the average politician, which is part of his appeal to his core supporters. “We have the power of God with us,” he said at a rally in April. “We have Jesus Christ that we’re serving here. He’s guiding and directing our steps.”
But Mastriano now needs to win over suburban voters who are likely to be turned off by his approach to faith and politics. For example, he describes politics as a cosmic battle between forces of good and evil, darkness and light.
“We are in a spiritual war,” he said in 2020. And there is no doubt in Mastriano’s mind about who is good and who is evil. “We're standing on the side of righteousness. We have nothing to be afraid of,” he told supporters at a recent rally.
God is on his side, Mastriano says. “In November we are going to take our state back, my God will make it so,” he said.
As for Democrats and the media, Mastriano talks about them with contempt, channeling what many on the right feel.
“The left are just nasty, terrible people. They really are,” he told Abby Abildness, a leader who connects Pennsylvania Republicans with a national network of Christian leaders who believe God speaks to them through dreams and visions and who have fused their apocalyptic vision of the spiritual world with their promotion of Trump.
“We're facing a vicious, determined, united foe that's willing to lie, cheat and steal — willing to destroy people's reputations and character,” Mastriano said. “I'm pretty squeaky clean, so they've got to make up stuff.”
Mastriano’s absolute certainty in his own cause and his belief that he is fighting a “spiritual war” against forces of “darkness” — combined with his refusal to recognize the 2020 election results and his support for the effort to overturn them — is part of why he is seen as so extreme.
“If you think that you are engaged in a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil, and you think that the lines between good and evil run between people rather than through people, and you are quite sure that you're on the side of the good and all of your enemies are on the side of evil, and this is a struggle over the very existence of America or Christianity, wouldn't you be willing to do anything and everything if you really, really believe that sincerely and with all your heart?” Philip Gorski, a historical sociologist at Yale University, said in an interview.
“Just follow it out to its logical consequence,” said Gorski, co-author of “The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy.”
And then, despite Mastriano’s talk of standing for “individual freedom” and a “live the life as you see fit” ethos, he has taken positions that are at odds with that.
In 2018, he said same-sex marriage should “absolutely not” be legal. “I’m for traditional marriage,” he said. “It’s been like that for 6,000 years. It was the first institution founded by God in Genesis and it needs to stay that way.”
He also said in the same interview that Islam is not “compatible” with the U.S. Constitution.
“The Constitution was founded on Judeo-Christian ideas, and it’s only compatible with that worldview,” he told a talk radio interviewer. “Guess what? Not all religions are created equal.”
Mastriano thinks abortion should be banned “from conception” and does not support any exceptions to that — for rape, incest or if the life of the mother is in danger.
In addition, during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, he called on Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, to suspend privacy protections for those who tested positive. The state was announcing positive case counts by county, but Mastriano said the state should announce people’s names and locations.
“Failure to do this will put blood on their hands,” said Mastriano, who later in the pandemic would rail against restrictions on public gatherings, mask mandates and vaccine requirements.
If elected governor, Mastriano would make it more difficult for many people to vote. He has said he would require every Pennsylvanian to re-register to vote, and he would eliminate no-excuse mail voting, a practice that was approved by Republicans in the state Legislature just a few years ago.
Finally, Mastriano has associated himself with numerous figures on the right who will not help him win over swing voters.
He paid $5,000 to Gab this year in an arrangement that appeared to result in new users being automatically subscribed as his followers, even though it was well known that the man who allegedly shot and killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 had posted antisemitic rants on Gab.
Mastriano also did an interview with Gab CEO Andrew Torba and praised him for creating a website with minimal content moderation, a policy that has led to the site being a haven for extremists. After media reports highlighted Mastriano’s recruitment of supporters on Gab, however, he distanced himself from Torba and deleted his account.
Part of the fallout from the Gab controversy is that some Republican groups have distanced themselves from Mastriano. The Republican Jewish Coalition recently hosted an event for Mehmet Oz, the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, but declined to do so for Mastriano. In July, the group condemned Mastriano’s ties to Gab, which it called “a social network rightly seen by Jewish Americans as a cesspool of bigotry and antisemitism.”
Mastriano has relationships with several figures who call themselves modern-day prophets who hear directly from God. These include Francine and Allen Fosdick, founders of the People of Prophetic Power Ministries, who openly promote QAnon conspiracy theories. Mastriano has appeared on their podcast more than once, and in April he appeared at a two-day “Patriots Arise” conference hosted by the Fosdicks.
The conference began with a six-minute QAnon video that claimed Hitler “faked his death” and that former President George H.W. Bush and former German Chancellor Angela Merkel were part of a “Nazi succession.” The video painted a portrait of a world in which virtually every historical event over the past century has been controlled by a “global satanic blood cult” that takes part in “ritual child sacrifice.”
When he spoke, Mastriano told the gathering that he was proud to have received a subpoena from the congressional select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. “God has his hand over us. And they’re not gonna get me to cower,” he said.
Mastriano has also appeared several times this year with an Iowa woman named Julie Green who says God has told her that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “loves to drink the little children’s blood” and that President Biden is “no longer alive” and is being played by an actor.
This string of events is partially why a growing number of Republicans are rejecting Mastriano and publicly backing Shapiro, the Democrat.
“Doug Mastriano and his rhetoric don’t represent GOP principles and only damage the conservative mission. He would be an absolute disaster for Pennsylvania,” wrote James D. Schultz, a Philadelphia attorney who worked in Trump’s White House Office of Legal Counsel and was general counsel to Republican Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett.
“Don’t confuse being a conservative with being a seditionist. Because some in our state GOP leadership have put self-preservation over principled conservatism, we’re stuck with a conspiracy-theorist candidate,” Schultz wrote. “But by no means must we stick by him.”