State Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin (R) and former state Rep. Rick Saccone at the U.S. Capitol 1/6/21 (Facebook photo)
Last week, a group of religious leaders and elected officials gathered at a Holocaust memorial in Philadelphia to denounce Republican Gov. Doug Mastriano 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 had paid the far-right social networking platform Gab to advise the campaign and secured the endorsement of founder Andrew Torba as a Christian nationalist candidate.
Founded in 2016, Gab rose to prominence as an alternative to Facebook and Twitter when those platforms began aggressively policing hate speech.
Speakers, including Democratic officials and clergy from Jewish, Christian and Islamic congregations, warned Republicans 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 at a news conference Wednesday.
The Frankel area is the site of the nation’s largest anti-Jewish terrorist attack in 2018 at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Gab was the site where the Tree of Life gunman who killed 11 synagogue members as they prayed posted anti-Semitic signs before the shooting.
As an outlet for Mastriano’s campaign messaging, Gabe became the vehicle for unbridled anti-Semitic attacks on Mastriano’s opponent, Democrat Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish.
“You cannot do business with these people and claim to represent all Pennsylvanians. If you accept anti-Semites, racists, homophobes and xenophobes, then you are one of them,” Frankel said.
Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, said Mastriano’s affiliation with anti-Semitism, which is present in Gabon, and his involvement in efforts to nullify the 2020 presidential election make him unfit to serve as governor.
“If Doug Mastriano were governor, he couldn’t credibly stand with the victims of the Tree of Life, synagogue attack and say I feel your pain and I’m going to make sure we bring those who did this to justice. We could not trust him as governor to do that,” Kenyatta said.
“The November elections must be a rejection of violence, anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia,” Kenyatta said.
“Rebel Doug should not become Governor Doug. He is a rebel. And frankly, he should be investigated, not promoted to Commonwealth Governor,” Kenyatta said.
On Thursday, Mastriano seemed 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 comments made by users and the founder.
“Andrew Torbo does not represent me or my company,” Mastriano said in a statement on Twitter. “The recent smears by Democrats and the media are clear attempts to distract Pennsylvanians from the suffering caused by Democrat policies.
“While extremist speech is an unfortunate but inevitable cost of living in a free society, extremist politics is not — and the only candidate in this election who wants to impose extreme politics on Pennsylvania — inflation, crime, lockouts and mandates — is Josh Shapiro “, Mastriano said in a statement.
Shapiro’s campaign and allies said Mastriano’s statement and departure from Gabo were hollow in light of his statements and actions elsewhere.
“Doug Mastriano’s deep support of Andrew Torba and Gabe goes so far as to literally thank God for Torba’s efforts to bring racist, anti-Semitic extremism into our communities — the same extremism that motivated the Tree of Life killer who used Torba’s platform minutes before the murder. 11 Jews in Pittsburgh,” said Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for Shapiro’s campaign.
“His refusal to censure Gabe and the vicious hatred on which his campaign is based is further evidence that he is too dangerous to be governor of Pennsylvania,” Bonder said.
Jill Zippin, chairwoman of Democratic Jewish Outreach PA, said if Mastriano intends to cut ties with Gabe and Torbo, he should claim the $5,000 paid to the campaign by his campaign and be censured. Torba’s anti-Semitic statements.
“We don’t want people who are atheists. We don’t want people who are Jews. We don’t want people who are, you know, unbelievers, agnostics, whatever. It’s clearly a Christian movement because it’s clearly a Christian country,” Torba said live earlier this month.
In live comments this week, Torbo responded to Mastriano’s criticism by saying, “We will no longer bow the knee to the 2 percent,” apparently referring to the approximate representation of Jews in the U.S. population.
“To say he’s not anti-Semitic doesn’t make it right,” Zipin said.
“He needs to say: ‘I don’t want these people to vote for me.’ He needs to say, “I’m not advocating white supremacy and anti-Semitism.” I do not accept your votes,” said Zipin.
Muhlenberg College sociologist Chris Borick said the poll numbers released Thursday may have prompted Mastriano to try to distance himself from Torba and Geb.
Fox News poll shows Pennsylvania voters back Shapiro over Mastriano with a margin of 50-40 percent. It also shows that Shapiro’s supporters are more enthusiastic than Mastriano’s, with 69 percent saying they are happy to support the Democratic nominee, compared to 49 percent who said they are excited for Mastriano.
“Mastriano feels he will need to make some significant moves to increase his competitiveness in this race. These are no longer republican primaries. This is a statewide race in a very important state, Borick said.
Mastriano also dismissed criticism that his policies, such as banning abortion without exception, 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 live broadcast on his Facebook page on Wednesday, Mastrina said the fact that he has been vetted at least eight times during his career as a US Army officer shows that he is not an extremist.
“The army removed people for extreme views and participation in extreme organizations,” Mastriano said.
Borick said Mastriano will have to convince voters that he is not as extreme as Shapiro’s campaign is trying to make him out to be.
“It’s a steep climb. His statements, positions, actions create a lot of evidence that Shapiro and the Democrats can use to paint him as extreme,” Borik said.
Neil Oxman, a veteran of many Democratic campaigns in Pennsylvania, said Mastriano may not be able to overcome the fact that moderate Republicans see him as an unacceptable candidate.
Shapiro is likely to get the votes of moderate Republicans from southeastern Pennsylvania and Democrats from southwest Regan, who have either gone Republican or lean to vote conservatively. If it weren’t for President Joe Biden’s plummeting approval ratings and the inflation crisis, Shapiro likely would have won in a landslide based on the latest poll, Oxman said.
“These are the numbers you have after a 20-week campaign where your opponent has spent millions of dollars trying to destroy you,” Oxman said.