Doug Mastriano was being interviewed by a conservative radio host this week about his efforts to overturn the results of the presidential election in Pennsylvania when his cell phone rang. It was President Donald Trump.
“If we don’t win this thing, we’re never gonna be able to bring our country back,” Trump told the Republican state senator on speakerphone Monday as he launched into a baseless conspiracy theory that the election was rigged. “People are angry. They’re angry in Georgia. And they’re really angry in Pennsylvania.
“But they happen to love Doug,” Trump added. “Doug is the hero.”
Mastriano, a potential candidate for governor in 2022 who represents an area of south-central Pennsylvania, could hardly have written a better script for his political ambitions. In the span of just a couple of weeks, the retired Army colonel from Franklin County went from being a relatively obscure lawmaker elected only last year to the unlikely leader of Trump’s unprecedented, if futile, crusade in Pennsylvania to overrule the will of the voters.
Officials in both parties are expecting a crowded field in 2022, when there will be open seats for both governor and U.S. Senate. A big question looming over the GOP is whether it continues to nominate candidates who align closely with Trump after he leaves the White House. While Trump narrowly lost Pennsylvania, Republicans beat expectations in down-ballot races, including in suburban areas where Joe Biden crushed Trump.
There is no evidence supporting Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud, and in various Pennsylvania lawsuits his campaign hasn’t even made a single allegation of a vote deliberately cast illegally. Rather, the legal efforts have been aimed at disqualifying votes that were legitimately cast under rules that are being disputed. Courts in Pennsylvania and other battleground states have rejected scores of lawsuits filed by the Trump campaign and GOP allies seeking, one way or another, to change the outcome of the election.
A Trump campaign lawsuit to invalidate the Pennsylvania results was dismissed by a Republican federal judge as a “Frankenstein’s monster” of claims lacking any supporting evidence.
That hasn’t stopped Mastriano and a few dozen other state lawmakers in Harrisburg, as well as a Pennsylvania Republican congressman, from trying to aid Trump’s bid to reverse Biden’s election as the nation’s 46th president.
It was Mastriano, 56, of Fayetteville, who organized a hearing in Gettysburg last month that gave Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani a platform to air grievances about the election. Trump himself called in to the hearing, held inside a Wyndham hotel conference room where most attendees, including Mastriano, were not wearing face masks. (Mastriano has questioned the scientific consensus that masks help mitigate transmission of the coronavirus.)
Since then, it’s been a strange but fitting initiation into MAGA world for Mastriano. He met with Trump at the White House, where he learned he’d contracted COVID-19 himself. (He said his symptoms were mild.) After Twitter temporarily froze one of Mastriano’s social media accounts, Trump blasted the company. (Twitter said it was an error.) And he’s conducted interviews with Trump-friendly conservative networks and personalities such as Trump’s former top aide Steve Bannon and Charlie Kirk, the head of the pro-Trump youth group Turning Point USA. Kirk promoted the Dec. 2 episode with the tagline “The Pennsylvania State Senator Who Might Have Saved America.”
“I’m fighting for the very life of the republic,” Mastriano said in the interview, during which Kirk credited him for having “single-handedly changed the tone in our country.”
Even as the Department of Homeland Security has declared the 2020 election the most secure in American history, Mastriano claimed that what unfolded in Pennsylvania was “the kind of stuff you hear about in Belarus under Lukashenko, or Putin’s Russia, or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.”
Mastriano, who did not return messages left with his office, has touted his efforts to empower the GOP-controlled legislature to disregard the results and pick its own Trump-loyal electors. His latest project is an effort to amend a provision of the state Constitution that effectively keeps the General Assembly out of session during December until new members are sworn in in January — by which time the Electoral College will already have formally elected Biden.
On Thursday, GOP legislative leaders issued a statement reiterating they would not interfere with the election results, saying the “General Assembly lacks the authority to take action to overturn the popular vote and appoint our own slate of presidential electors.”
However, in a letter Friday, House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) and more than 60 other lawmakers, including Mastriano, urged Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation to object to the Electoral College vote because, they said, the Wolf administration had undermined the state’s election law. The letter cited many of the same actions that courts have said were lawful.
Even though Mastriano stood almost no chance of succeeding in the campaign to override the will of Pennsylvania’s voters, his highly visible political theater and nonstop appearances on pro-Trump media defending the president could help him in a Republican primary down the road. It’s a bet that even after Trump leaves the White House, the path to the GOP nomination will run through him.
“Senator Mastriano’s bold actions and leadership to fight for election integrity in Pennsylvania will not be forgotten by President Trump’s Keystone State supporters if he were to seek statewide office in 2022 — he’d be a formidable candidate,” said Greg Manz, communications director for Trump’s 2016 campaign in Pennsylvania and a former adviser to his reelection campaign.
Mastriano likely won’t be the only Republican gubernatorial hopeful who tries to align with Trump, and some in the party question whether he’ll be able to raise enough money to be competitive in a statewide race.
On Tuesday, five Pennsylvania Republicans joined about three dozen members of Congress who signed a letter lashing out at U.S. Attorney General William Barr over what they called a “shocking lack of action from the Justice Department” regarding investigations into allegations of voter fraud. They delivered the letter the same day Barr undercut Trump’s baseless claims, telling the Associated Press that the Justice Department had “not seen fraud on a scale that could have effected a different outcome in the election.”
But it’s Mastriano who is seizing the spotlight in a fight that has singularly occupied the president’s attention over the last month.
Mastriano ran unsuccessfully for an open congressional seat in 2018 after the retirement of GOP Rep. Bill Shuster, finishing fourth in an eight-candidate primary won by John Joyce.
When State Sen. Rich Alloway resigned the following year from his seat representing Franklin and parts of Adams, Cumberland, and York Counties, Mastriano won a special election to serve out the remainder of the term, which ended this year. His consultant in that race, Vonne Andring, is now the state party’s executive director.
Mastriano won a full four-year term last month.
Known for wearing silver and gold spurs in the Capitol that he earned serving in the Army, Mastriano has drawn attention in Harrisburg this year as a fixture at rallies to “reopen” Pennsylvania amid Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 restrictions.
“Just down the road here in 1776, the light of liberty was lit, and it seems like it’s being snuffed out by our governor,” Mastriano told the crowd outside the Capitol building during a gun-rights rally in June.
Some Republicans see a potential Mastriano nomination as a gift to Democrats in a year that might otherwise favor the GOP. The party that doesn’t occupy the White House has historically done well in a new president’s first midterm election.
One Pennsylvania Republican strategist drew a parallel to the party’s 2018 gubernatorial nominee, then-State Sen. Scott Wagner of York County, who ran as a Trump firebrand and lost to Wolf in a landslide.
“Do Republicans wanna win?” asked the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly assess the emerging 2022 field. “We had a super Trumpy older white guy state senator from central Pennsylvania as our 2018 gubernatorial nominee. And he got 40% of the vote.”
It also remains to be seen whether Mastriano can build on his current moment once Trump is out of office, calls to “Stop the Steal” subside, and the news cycle is driven by the Biden administration.
But it’s a very different message in pro-Trump media. Kirk urged Mastriano to run for governor.
“If we get the call from God, we’re not gonna stand away from our Esther moment,” Mastriano responded, referring to a biblical story in which the new queen reveals her Jewish identity to the king and stops a plot by his minister to destroy the Jewish people. “As scary as it might be, jumping in that fray for a state of 13 million, if we don’t do our part, there’s consequences to pay.”