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In wagering on Doug Mastriano, Josh Shapiro plays a dangerous game for Pa. | Will Bunch

Democrats who salivated for Donald Trump as their 2016 foe haven't learned their lesson, as Josh Shapiro bets on Doug Mastriano.

Josh Shapiro (left) and Doug Mastriano
Josh Shapiro (left) and Doug MastrianoRead moreThomas Hengge / Staff Photographer & Associated Press

There’s no way he could win, an unqualified buffoon who veers between hate speech and gobbledygook. The polls are irrelevant because eventually, Republican primary voters will do what they always do and choose a responsible, establishment pick — maybe a former prosecutor, or a veteran lawmaker. And if by some miracle he actually wins the nomination, November will be a field day for the Democrats, because the public will see right through him.

What they say now about Pennsylvania Republican State Sen. Doug Mastriano is also what they said six years ago. “They always wanted Trump,” Politico Magazine headlined a piece about Hillary Clinton’s campaign strategy that was published on Nov. 7, 2016 — or roughly 24 hours before Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. That Nov. 8, disaffected white voters across the Rust Belt and pockets of rural America — people the Democrats didn’t seem to even know about — lined up to vote for a loudmouthed political novice. Trump “lost” the election when he labeled Mexican migrants as rapists, and when he mocked John McCain’s war record, and when he bragged on the Access Hollywood tape about sexual assaults ... until he didn’t.

The Democrats should have learned their lesson in 2016. In this millennium, it’s impossible to underestimate the power of “tha crazy” coming out of a Republican Party base in which not only a majority of voters now believe 2020′s Big Lie that the last election was somehow stolen from Trump, but in which an alarming number are waiting for John F. Kennedy Jr. — last seen when he died in a 1999 plane crash — to expose a baby-eating cabal of Democratic pols and Hollywood stars and maybe arrest Anthony Fauci for treason.

And yet you will probably not be shocked to learn that Democrats have not learned the big lesson of the 2016 election — at least not Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who’s assured of his party’s nomination for governor going into November. With a massive $16 million war chest and no primary opponent, the presumptive Democratic nominee is investing some of that cash in highlighting the GOP front-runner Mastriano and his record.

A Gov. Mastriano, Shapiro’s new TV spot says, would effectively ban abortion in the Keystone State and, the narrator continues, “he led the fight to audit the 2020 election. If Mastriano wins, it’s a win for what Donald Trump stands for.” Cue the Satanic music, maybe the only clue that the Shapiro campaign thinks these are bad things. The commercial’s closing pitch: “Is that what we want in Pennsylvania?”

The answer, for far too many people in a state where the wife-cheating, private-part-grabbing xenophobe won by 44,292 votes in 2016, would, unfortunately, be “yes.”

This is a “clever” campaign strategy that only an overpaid Democratic consultant can love. The idea is that touting Mastriano’s Trumpiness — in the kind of statewide ads that Mastriano himself apparently can’t afford — will bring more wackadoodles out for the GOP primary on May 17. And that could put the Central Pennsylvania state senator — whom polls suggest is leading the nine-candidate field, but not decisively — over the top. But the ad is supposed to be a 2-for-1 deal, because the silent majority of Pennsylvanians who (barely) elected President Joe Biden in 2020 and support abortion rights will also see it and become more motivated to show up in the fall to stop Mastriano.

Perhaps. The concept of “picking your opponent” is not new. Occasionally it seems to work — former Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill saved her seat in a mostly red state by boosting the GOP’s Todd Akin after an insane remark on rape and abortion — but often it doesn’t. In Philadelphia’s most famous case, 1999 Republican mayoral hopeful Sam Katz helpfully attacked Democrat John Street’s chief rival in a primary season ad. Street won the primary — and went on to beat Katz.

But the ethics are different this time around. Mastriano isn’t just a bad candidate (cough, cough Tom Corbett), or even a historically bad one. He is a uniquely dangerous man who — if elected this year in a “wave election” where Republicans win all over the place — would have the legislative support to undo our basic rights and rip the fading fabric of our democracy in the very state where these ideas were forged in 1776 and 1787.

In experimenting in the political lab with Mastriano, Democrat Shapiro is playing with fire — and it’s the 13 million people of Pennsylvania who could get burned. What’s more, folks in the other 49 states need to care about this — because a Gov. Mastriano would be uniquely positioned to hand the 2024 presidential election to Trump, even if Trump gets fewer votes here.

» READ MORE: Could a coup plotter become Pa. governor? | Will Bunch Newsletter

Mastriano, a retired Army colonel, is already, as a candidate, giving us a sense of what his leadership would be like by shredding a key part of the Bill of Rights — the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of the press — out on the campaign trail. Reporters are routinely barred from his events — even those advertised as free rallies — as NBC News journalist Allan Smith learned this weekend when security booted him from a Fayette County event, after he’d been told earlier by a Mastriano aide that “we already have adequate coverage.”

That’s not how it works — except in Mastriano World. The Inquirer reported that one of its reporters was also kicked out of a Mastriano event and that, at the check-in desk, his photo and those of other journalists were visible, presumably to block their entry. If Mastriano takes office as Pennsylvania’s 48th governor in 2023, the state’s residents can say goodbye to their right to know what their government is up to.

Of course, what Mastriano doesn’t want those reporters to hear is just as important, if not more so. If he is elected, the state where the founders crafted an experiment in religious liberty would be governed by an unabashed Christian nationalist. He recently spoke at a festival organized by two promoters of the QAnon conspiracy theory to proclaim: “We have the power of God with us. ... We have Jesus Christ that we’re serving here. He’s guiding and directing our steps.”

That two-day “Patriots Arise for God and Country” event was one of a number of QAnon-friendly forums that Mastriano has indulged in one way or another. At this one, attendees were bombarded with messages about “ritual child sacrifice” and a “global Satanic blood cult” among America’s elite circles, as well as theories that 9/11 was a “false flag” operation or that Hitler faked his death. These ideas could soon have an ear in the governor’s mansion.

One way that Mastriano’s Harrisburg would try to — in their vision, anyway — “have Jesus Christ that we’re serving here” would be to enact the strictest possible ban on women’s reproductive rights, with the Supreme Court believed to be just a few weeks away from overturning Roe v. Wade. Mastriano has already sponsored a bill to ban abortion in Pennsylvania after six weeks with no exceptions for rape, incest, or a danger to the life of the pregnant person, and he has signaled he would support a total abortion ban. It’s conceivable that a GOP trifecta in Harrisburg could emulate other states in targeting birth control and God knows what else.

But there’s an even more foundational threat to democracy if Mastriano rides a Republican wave to victory — given the GOP front-runner’s position as an early adopter of Trump’s Big Lie about a 2020 stolen election. Since November 2020, he has met with White House officials, rented buses for the Jan. 6, 2021, rally in D.C., roamed the U.S. Capitol grounds while insurrectionists attacked police officers nearby, and has now been subpoenaed by the House Jan. 6 committee.

In Pennsylvania, the secretary of state who will oversee the 2024 election is not chosen at the ballot box but will be handpicked by the new governor. A Mastriano nominee who’d be rubber-stamped by GOP lawmakers would be well-positioned to bend voting rules and, more importantly, the vote count in favor of Trump or some other Republican presidential candidate. This would occur on top of voter suppression laws of the type that have so far been blocked only because the state has had Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf these last eight years.

Shapiro may ultimately be proved right in his theory that these things — Mastriano’s contempt for American ideals like separation of church and state, a free press, a woman’s right to control her own body and destiny, and everyone’s right to have their vote counted — will be such an anathema to so many everyday Pennsylvanians that they will rally behind a second consecutive Democratic governor to protect them.

Personally, I’m less of a believer in Shapiro’s theory than in H.L. Mencken’s theory that no one ever went broke underestimating the American public. A Mastriano nomination could energize rural, QAnon-fed voters who would have been bored to the point of staying home with a traditional Republican like Bill McSwain or Dave White, while other swing voters will likely care more about high gas prices than Mastriano’s neo-fascism. It’s up in the air whether 2022 will be that Republican wave election, but if it is, that tide lifts every boat, even one as leaky as Mastriano’s.

There’s only two things I can say with 100% certainty about Election Day on Nov. 8. One is that it will be the sixth anniversary of the election of Trump, another whacked-out Republican who Democrats thought could never win. The other is that a Mastriano victory would be an unmitigated disaster. Imagine being Josh Shapiro and waking up to such a loss on Nov. 9 — and then imagine knowing you played a role in making that happen.

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