Doug Mastriano’s insular campaign is full of dedicated supporters — and serious doubts

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania, speaks in Chambersburg, Pa., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, a Republican candidate for Governor of Pennsylvania, speaks in Chambersburg, Pa., Tuesday, May 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Doug Mastriano’s small meet-and-greets across Pennsylvania are the most prominent part of his campaign for governor. But as the election enters its final months, GOP insiders — and even some dedicated fans — are worried the insular campaign isn’t reaching enough voters.

Mastriano’s events turn out dedicated supporters for photo ops and speeches about central campaign issues: Conspiracy theories about election fraud and immigration, culture war flashpoints like transgender women and girls playing sports, and the specter of since-ended pandemic mitigation measures.

But at an event this week in Pennsburg, in Montgomery County, anxieties about Mastriano’s campaign were also prominent.

“Understand something, we don’t have Little Josh’s $30 million in the bank,” campaign organizer Don Beishl told the hundred or so attendees ahead of Mastriano’s speech, referring to Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate.

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“You guys,” Beishl told the crowd, “are our $30 million.”

Mastriano, a state senator since 2019, began building his statewide reputation on Facebook during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic — posting live videos in which he mused to his phone camera about his belief that global warming is “pop science,” discussed his Christian faith and called people to find new churches if services weren’t in-person, and repeatedly shared baseless conspiracy theories about fraud in the 2020 election.

Many of his current supporters have been on his side since then.

Supporter Linda Mullins, who is 54 and lives in Telford, said she became aware of Mastriano when he started doing these live videos, saying “he was the only one speaking truth.” Since Mastriano began running for governor, Mullins has been doing her part by talking him up to her friends and people she works with.

“It can’t be all about money,” she said at the Pennsburg event. “It’s not all about money. It’s about meeting people where they’re at.”

But if Mastriano, who got about 44% of the vote in the crowded GOP primary, wants to expand his reach beyond dedicated supporters like Mullins, it might take some money.

His campaign has never had much. One of Pennsylvania’s biggest-spending GOP PACs actively tried to keep him from winning during the primary. He ended the last campaign finance reporting period, which finished in early June, with under $400,000 on hand. Shapiro ended the same period with $13.5 million.

More mainstream politicians have publicly gotten on board since then, abandoning their previous concerns that Mastriano was too extreme even though he hasn’t moderated his rhetoric. At the Pennsburg rally, Montgomery County GOP Chair Liz Havey sought to reassure supporters of that fact: “We are thrilled to have Doug as our nominee,” she said. “Don’t believe what you read.”

Still, concerns have persisted privately. One GOP operative with knowledge of the race said while they’re now supporting Mastriano, they haven’t “seen any evidence of structure to the campaign” and are confused by the overall plan.

As the election nears, the campaign has apparently sought to create slightly more structure. It recently shared contact information with supporters for six regional directors or teams of directors in charge of different parts of the state, though few seem to have much experience in politics.

While Mastriano’s events have begun getting bigger — he recently held a rally in Pittsburgh with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and has another planned with Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre — small meet-and-greets tend to be affordable. The Pennsburg event was hosted at Jurin Roofing Services, which the campaign says is also its new regional campaign office. The owner, a campaign staffer noted, is letting the campaign use the facility for free. He also donated $2,000, which the campaign blew up into a massive ceremonial check.

Beishl, a Bucks County-based organizer and conservative radio show host, is one of the few regional directors who has worked on campaigns in the past.

During the speech at the Pennsburg event in which he acknowledged Mastriano’s funding disadvantage, he stressed that the relatively moderate voters of the populous Philadelphia suburbs are “going to be the key to us winning this election.”

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“Get your friends out there to volunteer, to knock on doors and to work polls,” he said.

After the event, Beishl declined to comment on the campaign’s financial health or structure, saying that all journalists must first email a campaign press account and be vetted before staff would talk to them. An email to the account went unanswered.

That has been a constant throughout the campaign. Mastriano has kept his media appearances almost exclusively to right-wing radio and TV shows. As in all of Mastriano’s events, press who introduced themselves as such in Pennsburg were confined to a pen far from supporters and out of earshot of speeches. Campaign staff did not notice or stop the WHYY reporter who watched the event from the crowd.

Much of the speech Mastriano delivered lingered on social issues. He repeatedly told supporters he believes himself to be a feminist, because of his work to ban transgender women and girls from competing in sports with cisgender women. It’s an increasingly common talking point among the right wing of the GOP, though it is rare for trans women and girls to compete in organized sports, and Pennsylvania Republicans have said they have no idea how many transgender athletes there are in the commonwealth.

He mocked former state health secretary Rachel Levine, who is transgender, and the crowd joined him.

Repeatedly, he also brought up his opposition to school closures, vaccine and mask mandates, and the teaching of critical race theory — an academic framework mostly confined to higher education that examines the impact structural racism has had on American institutions.

Some of the biggest cheers came when Mastriano talked about his plans for the southern U.S. border.

“We can’t afford to have illegals in Pennsylvania,” he said, before adding that the Biden administration is bringing “ghost flights” full of undocumented immigrants into Pennsylvania — another fairly common right-wing talking point that sensationalizes a routine part of the U.S. immigration system.

The crowd in Montgomery County was uniformly enthusiastic. But among the supporters, it was clear some did have anxieties about Mastriano raising enough cash to win over swing voters who aren’t yet on board.

Waiting in the roofing company’s parking lot ahead of Mastriano’s speech, one man fell into a conversation with a campaign volunteer about strategy. He wanted to know, were these kinds of small meet and greets the campaign’s primary plan for competing with the well-funded Shapiro?

“You know, there’s less than 90 days,” he said. “What else is being done to get people out?”

The staffer didn’t answer that question. The big problem, she said, is election fraud. No matter what kind of campaign Mastriano runs, she doesn’t think the results will be trustworthy anyway.

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