Doug Mastriano's opponents call him extreme, but his campaign may be resonating with conservatives

The gubernatorial hopeful is using grassroots tactics and shunning the media.

August 19, 2022, 5:09 AM

The designated press area at a recent Doug Mastriano event in Indiana County was a small, roped-off square tucked into the back corner of an airport hangar where the Republican nominee to be Pennsylvania's governor spoke to a crowd of more than 100 people in fold-up lawn chairs.

There were no audio jacks, as are typically provided at campaign events to route high-quality sound to TV cameras, and no risers to give reporters a clear view of the stage. The five journalists in the press area left enough room for only about five more.

The scene in moderately populated Indiana County, roughly 60 miles east of Pittsburgh, is emblematic of much of the campaign for Mastriano, a right-wing state senator who has shunned the news media, relying instead on small events, Facebook, conservative press and campaign volunteers to project his message.

"It's like an underground network," Patricia Poprik, the Republican chair in Bucks County, told ABC News.

That doesn't mean it's a bad thing, Poprik said. "I can tell you: My county's got a huge, huge amount of volunteers."

Indeed, interviews this month with more than a dozen voters, Republican leaders and campaign workers depict an extensive grassroots movement that has energized conservatives around a candidate that had been seen by many -- including some Republicans -- as flawed and too extreme for the governor's mansion, which he will reach only by defeating state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat.

With about three months to go before Election Day, Shapiro holds a nine-point lead in the race, according to FiveThirtyEight's polling average. His campaign touts its own bottom-up prowess, citing an app the campaign says has pulled in hundreds of volunteers and thousands of accounts that have joined the official pro-Shapiro group on Facebook.

"While Josh is campaigning across the Commonwealth, bringing people together around his positive vision for Pennsylvania's future, Doug Mastriano continues to be defined by his dangerous extremism," Manuel Bonder, a spokesman, said in a statement.

Some Republican experts consider Mastriano's chances in November slim, but certainly not zero.

Nationally -- and particularly before the overturning of Roe v. Wade brought the issue of abortion access back on the ballot -- there had been many indicators this year that voters soured on the Democratic majority in Washington, including concerns about President Joe Biden's handling of the economy.

"I think Mastriano is a terrible candidate," said Josh Novotney, a Philadelphia-based Republican consultant, "but I think he actually has a shot of keeping it very close, and in a crazy situation actually winning."

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania, speaks at a primary night election gathering in Chambersburg, Pa., May 17, 2022.
Carolyn Kaster/AP, FILE

Mastriano, an Army veteran who won his state Senate seat in a 2019 special election, is staunchly anti-abortion, introducing a bill soon after taking office that would ban the procedure after six weeks. (The bill has not yet been brought to the floor for a vote.)

Tom Wolf, the incumbent Democratic governor, has vowed to veto any legislation that restricts the right to an abortion. Mastriano, meanwhile, has suggested he would sign his bill into law as well as similar ones that arrive at his desk.

"January 22, 1973 was one of the darkest days in American history. On that day, seven justices of the Supreme Court ruled that the right to life could merely be reduced to a decision of convenience," he said in a statement this spring, referring to Roe, the decision that granted a constitutional right to abortion which was overturned by the Supreme Court this summer.

Mastriano has also called climate change "fake science," said gay marriage should "absolutely not" be legal and argued that LGBTQ couples should not be allowed to adopt. His campaign did not respond to questions asking whether he still holds these positions.

Perhaps most notoriously, at least to his critics, Mastriano also attended then-President Donald Trump's rally outside the White House preceding the Jan. 6 insurrection and was reportedly among a group of people who appeared in a video from that day walking through police lines at the Capitol -- although he denied that he breached the security barriers, saying he and his wife left when the violence began.

"I join with all patriotic Americans in condemning what occurred in the Capitol," he said in a statement at the time.

He was also a "point person" in the scheme to send alternate Pennsylvania electors to Washington and overturn the 2020 election, according to The New York Times, although Poprik -- one of the "fake" electors -- told ABC News that she "never saw Doug at anything for the electors." Separately, sources told ABC News last week that he was set to be interviewed by the House Jan. 6 committee.

Some party leaders, fearing Mastriano's stances and history would make him a non-starter with moderate voters in the general election in a perennial swing state, made a last-ditch effort to consolidate behind a primary challenger, the Associated Press reported.

But GOP voters overwhelmingly favored Mastriano in the crowded field and he won the May primary by more than 20 points.

Despite the qualms of other Republicans, he impressed party officials with his grassroots approach, which he carried into the general election against Shapiro.

"It is one of the best ground campaigns I've ever seen," Randy Degenkolb, the chair of the Indiana County Republican Committee, told ABC News. "I've been in politics a long time and on a county level, this is a really energized grassroots group."

"He's not trying to do a top-down campaign where it's all marketing and politics and commercials," added Degenkolb. "He's really doing community events, person to person, keeping it real and keeping it fairly low-budget, which is really driving the grassroots campaign to do as much as they can to support him."

He is also teaming up with other prominent state Republican leaders: On Friday afternoon he'll appear with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Pittsburgh at a stop on the "Unite and Win" tour DeSantis is headlining.

PHOTO: Pennsylvania Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro speaks ata  rally and roundtable discussion to demand good union jobs and a voice in democracy on August 18, 2022 in Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro speaks ata rally and roundtable discussion to demand good union jobs and a voice in democracy on August 18, 2022 in Philadelphia.
Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Glenn Geissinger, the Republican chair in Northampton County, a swing county, recently told ABC News that there were "easily" at least 100 Mastriano volunteers in the county, an effort he called "exceptional."

"We have a constant request for his stuff," he said.

Don Clark, a 72-year-old who makes and distributes Mastriano lawn signs in Indiana County, told ABC News that he believes Mastriano is "fighting for the people."

"The other [candidates] are fighting to pad their pockets," he said.

Along the way, Mastriano's campaign has kept the media at arm's length. A video posted to Twitter in May shows a man appearing to prevent a Washington Post reporter from entering a venue hosting a campaign event. The man does not identify himself in the video or answer when asked if he works for the campaign.

ABC News was not restricted from accessing the event in Indiana County or speaking to voters there but has not received a response to multiple messages it has sent the campaign this month.

When reached by phone, Dennis Zappone, a coordinator for the campaign in Montgomery County, told ABC News, "I don't really know if we're permitted to even be talking to the news media."

Mastriano said recently that he would debate Shapiro -- if the debates were not moderated by outside news outlets, as is standard.

"You have a lot of media folks who have basically been hostile in the past to either the senator or conservatives," Sam DeMarco, the Republican Party chair in Allegheny County, suggested when asked why he thinks Mastriano rejects many traditional news outlets.

"He's going to focus on taking his campaign and his message to the voters," DeMarco said -- and Mastriano wouldn't be the first to try.

Yet, some supporters and party leaders who spoke to ABC News said they hope Mastriano will open up to the press this fall.

"I think he has to," said Tom Eddy, the Erie County Republican chair. "You've got to be able to work with those people. Because if he doesn't, I have to believe he's not going to get any good press."

"It might be helpful," acknowledged Pat Jonner, a supporter in her late 60s, as she left the Indiana event. "But he's done quite well just working closely with local people who are involved in campaigns throughout the state."

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