Does Josh Shapiro face the perfect opponent in Pennsylvania?

His Republican adversary is an "election denier" who is feted by QAnon

May 26, 2022 09:33

Now the smoke has cleared from the battlefield of last week’s Pennsylvania primary elections, it is evident that November’s contest for the state’s governorship will be nothing less than a fight for American democracy.

In one corner stands Josh Shapiro – a centrist, Jewish Democrat and currently Pennsylvania’s attorney general – who helped fight off Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election in the swing state two years ago.

In the other is state senator Doug Mastriano. Endorsed by Mr Trump in the campaign’s closing days, he was at the forefront of the former president’s effort to stop the state’s 20 electoral college votes being cast for the legitimate winner, Joe Biden.

Mr Mastriano’s comfortable, 24-point win last Tuesday and his controversial record have thrown a fierce media spotlight on the contest, which the Real Clear Politics website currently rates as a “toss-up”.

Pennsylvania matters. Although it has trended towards the Democrats in presidential election over the past 30 years, it has often been decided by wafer-thin margins. The state governor is, moreover, responsible for appointing the secretary of state, who oversees elections.

Pennsylvania also plays a special role in the American story. In 1787, the constitutional convention met at Philadelphia’s stately Independence Hall and laid the foundations for the US’ then-unique experiment in representative democracy.

It is thus fitting that the battle for the future of American democracy will be waged in Pennsylvania.

Mr Shapiro has made it clear this is the terrain upon which he’s happy to pitch his tent.

“They’re beholden to the big lie,” he said of his Republican opponents’ support for Mr Trump’s stolen election claims. “They peddle the big lie every day,” the attorney general told the Jewish Insider website in February.

Media observers agree and note that this contest will have ramifications far beyond Pennsylvania’s borders. On MSNBC, liberal commentator Lawrence O’Donnell, argued: “The future of American democracy is not supposed to be one of the things at issue in the election of a governor and it never has been before until now.”

Mr Mastriano has pledged that “voting reform will be his top priority, and says he wants to ban all postal voting and force all voters to re-register (a policy some believe to be illegal).

Mr Mastriano’s behaviour after the 2020 election suggests that none of this is idle talk. Newly elected to the state’s Senate, the retired army colonel threw himself into efforts to overturn Mr Biden’s win, pushing for the state legislature to ignore what he suggested was a “compromised” popular vote win for Mr Biden.

When these failed, Mr Mastriano’s campaign paid to charter buses to take supporters to Washington for Mr Trump’s now-notorious “Save America” rally on 6 January 2021, which he himself attended. (Mr Mastriano insists that he left the protest before it turned violent and there is no suggestion he entered the Capitol itself).

During this year’s governor’s race, Mr Mastriano has doubled-down on the false claims that Pennsylvania’s electoral votes were stolen from Mr Trump. He even described receiving a subpoena from the congressional committee investigating the Capitol attack as “a badge of honour”.

Surveying his record, the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent argued last week: “Pennsylvania Republicans [have] … nominated a full-blown insurrectionist who intends to use the power of the office to ensure that, as long as he is governor, no Democratic presidential candidate wins his state again.”

Mr Mastriano’s attempts to overturn the 2020 election and his apparent willingness to act similarly in 2024, Mr Sargent continued, are fuelled by a “Christian nationalist fervor”, rooted in a belief that the former president was divinely anointed to restore “America’s white Christian heritage”.

Can Mr Mastriano win? Even Republicans appear sceptical of his chances in what a former Pennsylvania party chairman describes as a “down-the-middle type of state”.

They admit that their candidate will need, in the words of another senior state Republican, to “reach beyond his base” and talk about issues other than his stance on the 2020 election in order to attract independents and moderate Republicans.

There is, however, little indication that Mr Mastriano intends to adopt such advice. Moreover, his“extreme” positions, as opponents characterise them, aren’t confined to obsessing about allegedly stolen elections.

A foe of abortion – he introduced a bill that would have effectively outlawed it in most cases – Mr Mastriano has also appeared at events linked to the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory and been awarded a “Sword of David” by its supporters for “fighting for our religious rights in Christ Jesus”.

Unsurprisingly, there appears to have been a late effort by leading Republicans players in the state to stop the bandwagon of support that was fast rolling towards Mr Mastriano even before Mr Trump’s last-minute endorsement.

By contrast, Mr Shapiro appears to enter the head-to-head fight against Mr Mastriano in good shape.

Unlike the cash-strapped Republican, he has amassed a considerable war-chest. This reflects the fact that he was the first Democrat to run opposed in a gubernatorial primary since 1930.

Mr Shapiro’s biggest boon, however, appears to have been the Republicans’ choice of Mr Mastriano as their nominee. “I think if Josh Shapiro got to wave a wand and pick his opponent, he would definitely pick Mastriano,” a Republican campaign fundraiser in the state, told Politico magazine.

Indeed, some commentators have suggested that the attack ads Mr Shapiro’s campaign began to air earlier this month – which highlighted Mr Mastriano’s opposition to abortion and support for Mr Trump – were designed to nudge the Republicans into selecting the state senator.

Early polling indicates why Mr Shapiro appears so keen to run against Mr Mastriano. In an initial match-up, Mr Shapiro leads by eight points among swing voters, a lead which stretches a further four points when voters were informed of key messages about the two candidates.

Despite his campaign launch in January featuring a man wearing a tallit and blowing a shofar, Mr Mastriano faces an uphill struggle convincing Jewish voters to back him. As Bill Kristol, the former editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and a leading Jewish “Never Trump” Republican tweeted: “Mr Mastriano is free to appropriate two of the most meaningful elements of Jewish worship, the prayer shawl worn on Shabbat and the shofar sounded on Rosh Hashanah, for his political event. And I’m free to say it’s beneath contempt.”

In a state where, polls suggest, three-quarters of Jews backed Mr Biden in 2020, Mr Mastriano’s strong association with Mr Trump and his hard-right conservatism is likely to play badly. With the Supreme Court expected next month to overturn abortion rights, Mr Mastriano’s uncompromising stance on this contentious issue alone may repel many Jewish voters; American Jews, research shows are more supportive of the right to choose than any other religious group.

And, if the election remains close, Jewish votes will count. Pennsylvania, which is home to 275,000 Jewish adults, was highlighted by academics at Brandeis University before the 2020 contest as one of a handful of battleground states where Jewish voters “could make a critical difference”.

Mr Mastriano is, of course, no outlier in the Republican party. “Election deniers”, as the US media label them, have notched up a series of victories across the country.

But be in no doubt: the “shining city on a hill” they aspire to is not that of which the right’s former icon, Ronald Reagan, spoke so often and movingly. Instead, it is the “illiberal democracy” which Viktor Orbán has spent a decade constructing in Hungary and to which US conservatives now increasingly pay homage.

May 26, 2022 09:33

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