One afternoon in early September, Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, approached me with his hand out. “How are you doing, brother?” he asked.
We were at the Muddy Run Tavern in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania, a pleasant-looking town of red-brick buildings that lies just about dead center in the state. Roughly 70 people had gathered to meet the candidate. These sparsely populated woodlands are Pennsylvania’s own flyover country, and they’re Trump territory. In each of his presidential runs, he captured more than 73 percent of the votes in Huntingdon County.
I told Mastriano that I was good, but that he should know I was a writer and was hoping to interview him. He emitted a surprising little squeak of a laugh and immediately turned back to his crowd of supporters. He doesn’t talk with the reporters in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh who usually follow statewide races, or even with local journalists. Normally at events he’s surrounded by a phalanx of armed guards; at one point, his detail included a former leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia. It occurred to me that, for him, this was a rare close brush with a mainstream journalist.
Mastriano, a 58-year-old retired Army colonel, is a Donald Trump acolyte and a fierce election denier. He’s on the tall side, maybe a shade over six feet, and athletic-looking. At the tavern he was dressed informally—baggy green pants and a blue polo shirt and blue hat, both with Army insignias. He moved from table to table with a big smile, lingering for conversations, shaking hands with the men and giving some of the women respectful hugs.
And then he addressed the crowd. He brought up a “dirty-laundry list” of issues that, he said, Democrats don’t like to talk about: One item on it is the compulsory mask wearing in schools imposed during the coronavirus pandemic by Pennsylvania’s current governor, the Democrat Tom Wolf. “I call that child abuse,” Mastriano said.
Pennsylvania is an energy-producing state, and tens of thousands of its residents have benefited from fracking by leasing their land, working in the industry, or both. In his remarks, Mastriano promised that, as governor, he would strip tens of thousands of regulations off the books, including any that constrain the energy industry. “We’re going to dig and drill like there’s no tomorrow,” he said. “And we’ll do it cleanly,” he added, noting that as a former Eagle Scout he knew how to keep things clean—as if all environmental concerns could be addressed by picking up lunch wrappers and soft-drink empties at drilling sites.
He accused Democrats of trying to erase cherished symbols of American history. He lambasted the “racism” being taught in public schools—a reference to critical race theory, which has become a big Republican talking point even though CRT is rarely if ever a part of any K–12 curriculum.
“And another thing they don’t want to talk about,” he said, before pausing a beat to deliver the punch line: “Levine.”
Everyone laughed. He didn’t have to say anything more. They got the joke.
Rachel Levine, a pediatrician, was Pennsylvania’s secretary of health from 2017 until 2021, when she joined the Biden administration. She is transgender.
“I know,” Mastriano said as the laughter subsided. “I don’t want to talk about her, either.”
Mastriano’s campaign is severely underfunded, and what had been a relatively slim margin in the polls has grown larger in recent weeks as his Democratic opponent, Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general, has clobbered him on the airwaves. But the sheer fact that someone like Mastriano is a major-party nominee to lead the nation’s fifth-largest state is alarming.
His appeal is clear. It’s directed at people who do not want to be troubled by anything that would not have been among their concerns a couple of decades ago. The list is long: global warming, George Floyd and police shootings, COVID, gender fluidity. They don’t want to be hassled and they don’t want to be judged.
I have a friend who lives in central Pennsylvania, and before the event at the tavern I asked him about his neighbors who voted for Trump and support Mastriano. Democratic nominees carried the state six consecutive times beginning in 1992, always comfortably, before Trump won the state in 2016. What was the allure of these candidates, whom I could not imagine getting elected in Pennsylvania just a few years ago? His answer: “People are angry they can’t be terrible anymore.”
A state senator since 2019, Mastriano has denied that he is a Christian nationalist—or that he even knows what the term means. But his views align with a movement whose adherents believe that America is inherently a Christian nation and that its founding documents are divinely inspired.
A faculty photo from the Army War College in Carlisle, from 2013 or 2014, recently surfaced in which everyone is dressed in civilian clothing or contemporary military garb except for Mastriano—who is wearing a Confederate uniform.
A week before January 6, Mastriano gave the invocation at a Zoom gathering called “Global Prayer for Election Integrity”: “God, I ask you to help us roll in these dark times,” he said. “That we fear not the darkness, that we will seize our Esther and Gideon moments, that we will stand in the gap, and when you say, ‘Who shall I send?’ we will say, ‘Send me.’”
Last September, Mastriano’s extremism got him kicked out of the Republican caucus in Harrisburg and barred from its internal meetings—no small feat in a body that leans far to the right. He had fought with State Senate Republican leaders whom he accused of “stonewalling” his efforts to investigate the 2020 presidential election and to subpoena voting equipment and information on individual voters. To be clear, his colleagues were also election deniers, but he was too aggressive even for them.
During the Zoom, Mastriano had prayed for the electoral vote in Pennsylvania to be overturned, asking God to bless letters that Trump had asked him to send to Republican leaders and to “embold them to stand firm and disregard what happened … until we have an investigation.” Part of his “election integrity” plan involves a proposal to make every voter in the state reregister—meaning that Pennsylvania would experience a moment in which it had zero eligible voters.
Mastriano’s campaign for governor has paid $5,000 for consulting services to the social network Gab—a haven for anti-Semites and neo-Nazis. It is the platform that Robert Bowers, the accused shooter in the 2018 Tree of Life attack in Pittsburgh, posted on just before 11 people were murdered inside the synagogue. At one of Mastriano’s recent rallies, a Texas evangelist who preceded Mastriano to the podium warmed up the crowd by asking them to swear an oath to “sweep down the hill to victory,” as Union soldiers did at Gettysburg. (At least it was a reference to Union soldiers!) Everyone raised their right hand in the air.
To dwell too deeply on Mastriano’s politics produces a kind of vertigo. Everything’s upside down. Shapiro, Mastriano’s opponent, is an observant Conservative Jew. Mastriano has responded to charges of anti-Semitism by pointing out that some of his own events begin with the blowing of a shofar by a man who wears a tallit, or Jewish prayer scarf. “We had a shofar, a prayer shawl, and then suddenly … you’re an anti-Semite,” he complained in August. “Like, make up your mind.” (The man blowing the shofar at his events is referred to as “Pastor Don,” which doesn’t sound terribly Jewish.)
In late August, when Mastriano was a guest on the podcast The World According to Ben Stein, one of the hosts attacked Shapiro as a “self-hating, anti-Semitic Jew.” Mastriano, he said, was different: “You, Doug, are an Israel supporter, and more than an Israel supporter, you are a Jew supporter.”
Considering all this, I figured that when I identified myself inside the Muddy Run as a journalist, it might feel a little tense, but that wasn’t the case. Most people at the tavern were happy to talk.
John Skipper, beside me at the bar, told me a little about his life. He had worked at New Holland Agriculture, a farm-equipment company, in assembly and quality control. He retired at 69 but, with his pension and Social Security, still makes about what he did before. He and his wife, who had worked at a JCPenney, sent their two sons through Penn State. Skipper is a devout Republican. The Democrats, he said, were “erasing history. I want to return to what we once had.”
Skipper introduced me to Jim Heichel, one of the Muddy Run’s owners. Heichel said he did not know that much about Mastriano, though he planned to vote for him. He was much more excited about an event taking place the following evening at the bar: “midget wrestling,” he called it. (The actual name of the sponsoring entity was the Micro Wrestling Federation.)
He had already sold nearly 300 tickets—$20 for general admission, $40 for ringside. He had to pay the wrestlers, of course, as well as lodge them in a nearby hotel and lay in a supply of Bud Lights and Red Bulls. “I’ll have them dress upstairs and they’ll enter from there,” he said, pointing to the back of the establishment. “When they come by me, I’m going to smack them on the ass, just to get them more riled up.”
When it was time to settle my bill, the bartender said that wasn’t possible. Skipper had already paid it. “I know a good man when I see one,” he said when I thanked him. I left a tip that would have been enough to cover my beer and cup of onion soup.
I’ve been observing Pennsylvania politics for almost as long as I can remember, starting at about age 8, when my parents first conscripted me as a kind of child soldier for the Democratic Party. I helped hand out literature at the polls on Election Days, and they were always a carnival. There were doughnuts in the mornings and pizza and hoagies throughout the day. State law used to forbid bars from opening while voting was ongoing, but even so, tempers grew short as darkness fell, and it was not unusual for a fistfight to break out over some perceived violation of election law or common courtesy.
The state’s politics have long been passionate—but not insane.
I no longer live in Pennsylvania, but as a journalist, I’ve traveled there repeatedly to try to interpret its politics and culture for a national audience. In 2005, I wrote a profile of then-Senator Rick Santorum, which many of my friends let me know was far too soft on him. But Santorum, while certainly a hard-right conservative, was not comparable to Mastriano, who frequently comes off, colloquially speaking, as a nutjob.
It may be comforting to think that he is too far outside the mainstream to win, but what exactly is that in Pennsylvania these days? Trump won the state in 2016 and came within a whisper of doing it again four years later. With Trump’s backing, Mastriano won his party’s May primary over a field of more conventional candidates.
Another important race is happening in Pennsylvania this November—the contest for the U.S. Senate between the Democrat John Fetterman, the current lieutenant governor, and the Republican Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor. The result could determine the balance of power in the Senate for the next two years.
The governor’s race, however, carries potentially greater and longer-lasting impact. If Mastriano wins, he could combine with a Republican-controlled legislature to rewrite voting laws. The secretary of state in Pennsylvania, who administers elections, is appointed by the governor. By imposing his vision of “election integrity”—or, for that matter, by calling on God to guide him to the rightful winners—Mastriano could ensure that no Democrat wins a Pennsylvania congressional seat for a generation, and that no Democratic presidential candidate captures its electoral votes.
Democrats rooted for Mastriano’s victory in the primary and spent money to strengthen his chances, because they viewed him as the weakest of their potential opponents. Shapiro ran TV spots that called Mastriano “one of Donald Trump’s strongest supporters” and stated that his victory would be “a win for what Donald Trump stands for.” Ostensibly attack ads, they were designed to help Mastriano by appealing to the Trump-loving base that would vote in the state’s GOP primary.
The party did the same in other races around the country. It’s a cynical and dangerous tactic for many reasons, one of which is that it legitimizes candidates like Mastriano. Even if he loses, Mastriano is likely to pull a couple of million votes. Helping him get a spot on the ballot normalizes the thought that a politician with his views could become governor.
The Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is likely to boost Shapiro, especially in the suburban counties outside Philadelphia. In the past, Mastriano has advocated a ban on abortion, with no exceptions. “That baby deserves a right to life whether it is conceived in incest or rape or there are concerns otherwise for the mom,” he said at a campaign rally during the primary. He has also said said that women who have abortions should be charged with murder.
Mastriano usually invites his wife, Rebecca, whom he calls “Rebbie,” to the microphone in the middle of his remarks, and she advocates for “a woman’s right to be born” as she goes down a list of women’s rights she favors. (Among the others are the ability to find baby formula on store shelves and the right to play sports free of transgender competitors.) Her husband rarely mentions abortion at all now, an indication that he does not see it as a winning issue.
The most likely outcome in November is a Shapiro victory. The average margin on RealClearPolitics gives him a nine-point lead, one that has been growing steadily larger over the past month.
But with the election still five weeks away, it is not hard to imagine events that could swing voters in the other direction: newly elevated gas prices; more bad news on inflation; a steep decline in stock prices; a catastrophic turn in the Russia-Ukraine war with consequences for the U.S. economy. Any one of those things occurs, and you could get a whole lot of GOP victories.
Trump showed up to a Wilkes-Barre rally for Mastriano in September, and everyone there seemed to be living in the former president’s altered state of reality. When I talked with Dawn Steffen, 43, she had been standing in the parking lot for five hours, waiting for the arena doors to open. “Everybody’s been super friendly and nice,” she said. “I just think it’s like a melting pot of people.” I looked in every direction and did not see a single person who was not white.
No one there believed the results of the 2020 election. Micah Mulhern, 17 and a senior at a local prep school, was wearing a Trump Won hat. “I think it’s very unlikely that 80 million people could look at Joe Biden and look at the way he speaks, look at how he acts when he’s asked a tough question, and say, Yeah, I think this is a really good pick to be in charge of the greatest nation on the planet,” he told me. “I know you are going to get labeled a conspiracy theorist for saying that, or some crazy right-wing nutjob, but if you look at it critically, it doesn’t add up.”
Oz was at the rally as well, and Trump offered him what seemed like obligatory praise. Mastriano, the former military man, is more Trump’s type of guy. “He’ll be tough as hell on a thing called illegal immigration,” Trump said before bringing him to the podium. “He’ll back down those violent criminals.”
“Oh yeah,” Mastriano said as he stepped to the microphone. “Love you,” he said to Trump.
Mastriano sometimes speaks in a genial tone that can make him seem like a high-school history teacher with some quirky ideas, so long as you don’t think too deeply about the content. In Wilkes-Barre, however, he was clearly amped up by Trump. He sounded like he was running to be the state’s strongman rather than its governor. “On day one, we’ll have the backs of law enforcement like never before,” he said. The crowd roared its approval.
Jim Greenwood, who represented a House district in suburban Philadelphia for a dozen years and is one of two former Republican state congressmen working to defeat Mastriano, thinks he can win. “It’s a mistake to think he can’t,” he told me. Greenwood said that although the state’s Republicans have generally elevated moderates, Trump has awakened a different crowd that’s looking for “red meat.”
“These are not just people sitting in the mountains whittling sticks,” he said. “They’re everywhere. Some of them had never voted before.”
Michael Nutter, who served two terms as Philadelphia’s mayor, echoed Greenwood’s concern. “Mastriano is Trump Jr.,” he told me. “He’s an existential threat to democracy.” In Pennsylvania today, as in so much of America, Nutter said, “there’s an appeal to that brand of lunacy.”