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As campaign struggles, Doug Mastriano plans ‘40 days of fasting and prayer’

The Republican gubernatorial candidate is losing some support among GOP allies as his cash-strapped campaign turns to Twitter memes and, apparently, divine intervention.

Republican Pa. gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano during a Save America rally with former President Donald Trump earlier this month in Wilkes-Barre.
Republican Pa. gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano during a Save America rally with former President Donald Trump earlier this month in Wilkes-Barre.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

It was billed as a blockbuster, but ended up a flop. If Doug Mastriano’s “big rally” last weekend were a movie, its Rotten Tomatoes score would be in the single digits.

Only a few dozen supporters joined the Republican state senator on the steps of the Capitol building in Harrisburg — some of them members of a local militia group.

The photos looked bad, because it was bad. The press coverage? Brutal.

A few days earlier, Mastriano’s fund-raising troubles had become clear. He’d appeared on a conservative podcast and asked if perhaps U.S. citizens living abroad might consider contributing to his cash-strapped campaign.

He is running for governor of Pennsylvania.

The polls don’t look great, either. Democrat Josh Shapiro — who was so convinced that Mastriano would struggle in the general election that he ran ads to help him secure the GOP nomination — has been shelling Mastriano for months with a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign.

Mastriano hasn’t run or booked any TV ads in response. He doesn’t do interviews with most media outlets, and won’t agree to a standard format debate.

Now, with the election only 41 days away, the head of a conservative group airing anti-Shapiro ads is questioning Mastriano’s tactics, particularly his insistence on campaigning within an echo chamber of hard core supporters.

“We were opposed to Doug’s candidacy in the primary because we feared that he would not be able to connect with the independent and moderate Democrat voters that are necessary for Republicans to win in Pennsylvania,” said Matt Brouillette, the head of Commonwealth Partners, a pro-business group whose PAC is running the ads criticizing Shapiro.

“Unfortunately, six weeks from the election,” Brouillette said Tuesday, “I haven’t seen anything to suggest we were inaccurate in our assessment.”

» READ MORE: Doug Mastriano’s security bubble insulates him from prying eyes and dissenting views

Republicans, already in charge of the state legislature, have a chance to take complete control in Harrisburg, and to shape the state’s policies on abortion, voting, and other issues, and to oversee Pennsylvania’s crucial 2024 presidential race.

But some Republicans are worrying that Mastriano is squandering the opportunity in one of the country’s most consequential races. Would-be allies have remained on the sidelines, having concluded by now that a Mastriano win in November might require a minor miracle.

Coincidentally, divine intervention is just what the candidate has in mind this week.

On Monday night, Mastriano’s campaign posted on Facebook a photo of two hands under the words “40 days of fasting & prayer” with the dates Sept. 29 through Nov. 8 — Election Day. “Interceding for our elections, our state, and our nation,” it stated, along with a verse from the Book of Isaiah.

“Starting in a few days,” Mastriano wrote in the post. One Facebook supporter responded: “It’ll be my honor to fast with you.”

While it is unclear who Mastriano expects to start fasting on Thursday, the recent entreaties seem to indicate that his campaign, which epitomizes what scholars call Christian nationalist ideology, has fallen on hard times.

The messaging has grown increasingly erratic, sometimes arguably bordering on nonsensical. One of Mastriano’s main attack strategies these days is emphasizing that he is taller than Shapiro. He and his supporters have also, at times, reverted to earlier campaign themes, such as emphasizing his opposition to abortion with no exceptions, that might have helped during a GOP primary, but that are unpopular with the wider electorate. He has also revived his attacks on fellow Republicans.

“The GOP establishment is selling out Doug. Never forget this. Ever,” conservative provocateur Jack Posobiec, one of Mastriano’s biggest online boosters, tweeted last week to his 1.8 million followers.

Mastriano then retweeted it — even as he seeks financial support from that same GOP establishment.

Jenna Ellis, Mastriano’s legal adviser, also lambasted the Republican Governors Association last week for not funding his campaign and urged voters to contact the RGA directly. She later deleted the tweet.

On abortion, Mastriano had sought to downplay the issue after the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, calling it a “distraction” in the governor’s race. But, last week, he returned to an earlier talking point, and again referred to it as “the single most important issue, I think, in our lifetime.”

Then, this week, he told a conservative network that his views on abortion are “kind of irrelevant” because the legislature, not the governor, writes the laws. (While the governor cannot change the law unilaterally, he can veto abortion legislation passed by the Republican-controlled legislature. Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has blocked such bills three times, and Shapiro has said he would also do so).

On Tuesday, NBC News dug up an old radio clip from 2019 in which Mastriano said women who violated his proposed abortion ban should be charged with murder.

The Mastriano campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

J.J. Abbott, a former press secretary for Gov. Wolf who now runs a progressive advocacy group, said Mastriano’s failure to build a campaign infrastructure and consolidate support within the GOP appears to be catching up to him.

“It’s one thing to run a rural state Senate campaign using your friends and family,” Abbott said. “It’s very hard to do that at this scale statewide. Shapiro has a strong campaign and a lot of statewide and local infrastructure through his campaign endorsements and supporters. Doug seems to have very little outside his band of misfits and small group of core supporters.”

On television, you’d be hard-pressed to know Mastriano is even running for governor — except for when he’s mentioned in Shapiro attack ads. The Republican hasn’t spent a dime on TV since winning the nomination, according to AdImpact, which tracks political advertising.

Shapiro has outspent Mastriano, on TV, Google, and Facebook since the primary by $21.6 million to $6,300 through Tuesday. All of that $6,300 from Mastriano has been on Google and Facebook ads. Shapiro has spent nearly $2.8 million on those platforms alone. The Democrat right now has six different ads on the air, according to AdImpact.

» READ MORE: Mastriano mocks Shapiro as ‘little Josh.’ Shapiro’s revenge: a massive bank account.

The only ads running on the Republican side are from Brouillette’s group. The PAC has put up $5.1 million of TV spots. They don’t mention Mastriano, only criticize Shapiro.

Shapiro has reserved another $8 million of airtime between now and Election Day. Mastriano: $0.

“In this environment, in this election year, it is likely the only time a candidate like Doug Mastriano could possibly win,” Brouillette said. “But I don’t see a path without the resources to connect with those key swing voters.”

While it is possible deep-pocketed Republican groups could step in with last-minute cash, Mastriano and his supporters are making that increasingly unlikely by continuing to burn bridges within the party.

Still, in last week’s podcast with former Donald Trump aide Steve Bannon, Mastriano made a pitch for more money. He strongly implied that, if elected governor, he’d use that power to help the GOP presidential candidate win Pennsylvania in 2024.

“If you want a free and fair election in 2024 for president, in Pennsylvania, we got to win in 2022,” said Mastriano, who bused supporters to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021. “I get to appoint the secretary of state.”

But even some conservative figures have recoiled at his far-right rhetoric around decertifying all of the state’s voting machines “with the stroke of a pen” and making “corrections” to elections. Two Republican super PACs have been working against Mastriano since the primary, along with other well-known Republican figures.

In a recent Washington Post column headlined, “Why Mastriano’s candidacy presents a special danger to the nation,” the conservative columnist George F. Will wrote, “His motives are frightening because they are pure: He has the scary sincerity of the unhinged whose delusions armor them against evidence.”

In vacuum of TV ads, Mastriano and his supporters have turned to an inexpensive, renewable source of campaign energy: internet memes and hashtags.

A string of newly created Twitter accounts with names like “Dark Doug” and “Doug Enjoyer” recently started promoting hashtags like “#Dougvember” and “#MastrianoMonday,” buffeted by Ellis and other conservative social media influencers. Some pro-Doug accounts have flooded Twitter with images of the retired Army colonel sporting laser eyes or atop loud, meme-able 1980s backgrounds.

Privately, GOP operatives watching the race say Mastriano has turned out to be exactly the political liability they feared.

“What has he done to gain a vote since May?” asked one longtime Republican Pennsylvania operative, who asked for anonymity in order to speak frankly about his party’s nominee. “Winning statewide in Pennsylvania is hard, and you have to run a relatively perfect campaign, or be in unique circumstances.”

Of course, polls — and many Republicans — also predicted a complete wipeout when Trump ran for president in 2016, only for him to surprise the country with the strength of his support. Polls in 2020 also severely underestimated Trump’s support in some swing states, including Pennsylvania.

Still, Republican operatives say this race feels different. Trump may have been divisive, but he delivered his message to a wide swath of the electorate. His events were open to the media, he did interviews with many news outlets, and he ran ads. He also had the benefit in 2016 of running against a Democrat, Hillary Clinton, who was nearly as unpopular as he was.

At Saturday’s rally, Mastriano delivered a speech in which he railed against so-called critical race theory, promised “no more boys in the girls’ bathroom,” and praised Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ stunt of flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. The candidate was then whisked away to an SUV without taking questions, and a state trooper pushed a local newspaper reporter out of the way as he asked Mastriano about accepting the results of the November election, according to the New York Times.

(Mastriano has already laid the groundwork for claiming that the upcoming election will be marred by irregularities, saying in since-deleted Facebook live videos that he’d need a large turnout “to overcome the fraud.”)

In a video Mastriano recorded on Sunday with this wife, Rebbie, he told his supporters “don’t be discouraged” as he described the stakes of the election in grandiose language.

“We’re in this race because many thousands of you asked and begged and pleaded even, sometimes with tears in your eyes, for Rebbie and I to run over the past several years. And we’re in this race together,” Mastriano said. “The future of our children, and our children’s children, and of everything, our way of life, is at stake. Stay focused on the prize.”

Inquirer researcher Ryan Briggs contributed to this article.