State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin (R) and former state Rep. Rick Saccone at the U.S. Capitol on 1/6/21 (Facebook photo)
Last week, a group of faith leaders and elected officials gathered at Philadelphia’s Holocaust memorial, where they renounced Republican gubernatorial Doug Mastriano’s for his campaign’s use of an online haven for hate speech.
It was part of a steadily rising wave of condemnation that has dogged Mastriano since the first reports that he paid the far-right social media platform Gab for campaign consulting, and received founder Andrew Torba’s endorsement as a Christian nationalist candidate.
Started in 2016, Gab rose to prominence as an alt-right alternative to Facebook and Twitter when those platforms began to aggressively police hate speech.
The speakers, including Democratic officials and clergy from Jewish, Christian and Islamic congregations, warned Republicans who are considering supporting Mastriano that his governorship would be a step too far.
“There’s no coming back from this,” state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, said during the Wednesday news conference.
Frankel’s district is the site of the nation’s largest anti-Jewish terror attack in 2018 at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Gab was the platform where the Tree of Life gunman, who killed 11 members of the synagogue as they prayed, posted anti-Semitic screeds before the shooting.
As an outlet for Mastriano’s campaign messaging, Gab became a medium for unrestrained anti-Semitic attacks on Mastriano’s Democratic opponent, Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish.
“You cannot do business with these people and claim to represent all Pennsylvanians. If you embrace antisemites and racists and homophobes and xenophobes, then you are one of them,” Frankel said.
Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, said Mastriano’s affiliation with the anti-Semitism present on Gab and his involvement in the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election make him unfit to hold the office of governor.
“If Doug Mastriano was governor, he could not credibly stand with the victims of the Tree of Life, synagogue attack, and say I feel your pain and I will make sure that we hold accountable those who did it. We could not trust him as governor to do that,” Kenyatta said.
The November election must be a repudiation of white supremacist violence, anti-Semitisim, racism and homophobia, Kenyatta said.
“Insurrection Doug not must not become Governor Doug. He’s an insurrectionist. And frankly, he should be investigated, not promoted to governor of the Commonwealth,” Kenyatta said.
On Thursday, Mastriano appeared to at least acknowledge the poor optics of seeking votes from Gab users. Mastriano removed his profile from Gab, and released a statement distancing himself from the racist and bigoted statements of its users and founder.
“Andrew Torba doesn’t speak for me or my campaign,” Mastriano said in the statement on Twitter. “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 – and the only candidate in this election who wants to impose extreme policies on Pennsylvania – inflation, crime, lockdowns, and mandates – is Josh Shapiro,” Mastriano’s statement said.
Shapiro’s campaign and allies said Mastriano’s statement and departure from Gab rang hollow in the light of his statements and actions elsewhere.
“Doug Mastriano’s deep support for Andrew Torba and Gab goes so far that he has literally thanked god for Torba’s efforts to bring racist, antisemitic extremism into our communities – the very extremism that motivated the Tree of Life murderer, who used Torba’s platform moments before killing 11 Jewish people in Pittsburgh,” Shapiro’s campaign spokesperson, Manuel Bonder, said.
“His refusal to denounce Gab and the virulent hatred his campaign is founded on is simply further proof that he is far too dangerous to be Governor of Pennsylvania” Bonder said.
Jill Zipin, chairperson of Democratic Jewish Outreach PA, said if Mastriano intends to cut ties with Gab and Torba, he must demand the $5,000 his campaign paid to the company and denounce Torba’s anti-Semitic statements.
“We don’t want people who are atheists. We don’t want people who are Jewish. We don’t want people who are, you know, nonbelievers, agnostic, whatever. This is an explicitly Christian movement because this is an explicitly Christian country,” Torba said in a livestream earlier this month.
In livestreamed comments this week, Torba responded to criticism of Mastriano, saying, “we’re not bending the knee to the 2 percent anymore,” in an apparent reference to the approximate representation of Jewish people in the U.S. population.
“Saying that he’s not an anti-Semite doesn’t make that statement true,” Zipin said.
“He needs to say, ‘I do not want these people to vote for me.’ He needs to say, ‘I do not stand for white supremacy and anti Semitism. I do not accept your votes,’” Zipin said.
Muhlenberg College pollster Chris Borick said poll numbers released Thursday may have spurred Mastriano to attempt to distance himself from Torba and Gab.
A Fox News poll shows Pennsylvania voters back Shapiro over Mastriano by a 50-40 percent margin. It also shows Shapiro’s supporters are more enthusiastic than Mastriano’s, with 69 percent saying they’re excited to back the Democratic nominee compared to 49 percent who said they’re enthusiastic about Mastriano.
“Mastriano senses that he’s going to have to take some significant steps to increase his competitiveness in this race. This isn’t the Republican primary anymore. This is a statewide race in a very important swing state,” Borick said.
Mastriano has also pushed back against the criticism that his policies, such as banning abortion with no exceptions, requiring all voters to re-register, and his promotion of the “Big Lie” that election fraud cost former President Donald Trump re-election, are extreme.
In a Wednesday livestream on his Facebook page, Mastrino said the fact that he was vetted at least eight times during his career as a U.S. Army officer shows that he is not extreme.
“The Army did remove people for extreme views and being part of extreme organizations,” Mastriano said.
Borrick said Mastriano will need to convince voters that he isn’t as extreme as Shapiro’s campaign will try to portray him.
“That is a steep climb. His record of statements, positions, actions, create quite an abundance of evidence that Shapiro and Democrats can use to paint him as extreme,” Borrick said.
Neil Oxman, a Democratic veteran of many Pennsylvania campaigns, said Mastriano may not be able to overcome the fact that moderate Republicans see him as an unacceptable candidate.
Shapiro is likely to get votes from moderate southeast Pennsylvania Republicans and southwest Regan Democrats, who either became Republicans or tend to vote conservatively. If not for President Joe Biden’s sagging approval numbers and the inflation crisis, Shapiro would be likely to win in a landslide based on the most recent poll, Oxman said.
“Those are the kind of numbers that you have after a 20-week campaign where your opponent has spent millions of dollars tearing you down,” Oxman said.
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