Mastriano edits website to soften controversial positions, elevate culture war stances

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A month out from Election Day, the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania is struggling to compete with his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

State Sen. Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania governor, altered much of the language on his campaign website at the end of last month, cutting material about abortion and election conspiracy theories while adding sections on immigration, crime, and transgender rights.

Mastriano has struggled to gain traction against his Democratic opponent, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. Shapiro has outraised Mastriano in donations and leads the race by a 10-point margin in most recent polls.

Unlike a number of his fellow Republican candidates, who scrubbed their websites of some unpopular views after the primaries, Mastriano has, up to this point, made no effort to moderate or disguise his hard-right policies.

Mastriano's position on abortion — which became one of the defining issues of the race after the Supreme Court in June overruled Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that found a constitutional right to abortion in the first trimester of pregnancy — has been a particular target of Democratic messaging.

Until late September, Mastriano's website included a link to a video in which he said, "The idea that in 2022 we deny science, that we're still told it's a blob of tissue in a mother's womb — you know, my body my choice is ridiculous nonsense here."

The Democratic Governors Association spent $2.7 million elevating that quote in an attack ad that aired across the state over the summer.

Mastriano's campaign also removed from his website language about "Election Integrity" that promised Mastriano would "end all contracts with compromised voting machine companies" and "ban the use of private funds (like Zuckerbucks) to influence elections."

"Zuckerbucks" refers to a right-wing conspiracy theory that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, unduly influenced the outcome of the 2020 election by distributing roughly $350 million in grants through a nonprofit to support state election systems during the pandemic.

According to internal campaign emails obtained by the New York Times, Mastriano was the Pennsylvania "point person" for attempts by the campaign of former President Donald Trump to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election ahead of the insurrection by Trump supporters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Mastriano, who promotes the false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, was at the Capitol on the day Trump supporters stormed the building in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the election.

Mastriano's website no longer contains the details of his controversial education plan, which an analysis found would cut per-student funding by between $9,000 and $10,000. The site previously described his plan to "shift funding to students instead of systems," but now includes a promise to make sure that public schools are "well-funded."

New sections added around the same time focus on three issues that have come under attack from the right: the rights of transgender kids, immigration, and crime and civil unrest.

Mastriano made transphobia a major part of his campaign, supporting legislation to restrict the rights of transgender youth and making transphobic jokes about Rachel Levine, the U.S. assistant secretary for health and a former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health. A new section of his website now promises to ban transgender girls from girls' bathrooms, locker rooms, and from competing in girls' sports "on day one."

On immigration, another new section, his website says that Pennsylvania won't be a "sanctuary state for Biden's illegal immigrants" and says he'll ban federal flights containing undocumented immigrants from landing in the state — part of inflammatory language primary candidates across Pennsylvania, including Mastriano, promoted that implied the Biden administration is using child refugee resettlement flights to strain the state's resources, and bring crime, disease, and drugs into the state. He said in January he planned to co-sponsor a bill to ship undocumented immigrants in federal custody to Delaware, but it never materialized.

On crime, Mastriano said he'd "hold elected officials accountable" and remove officials who "don't do their job." Crime in Democratic cities has been a target of what critics say are deceptive attacks by the Republican Party nationwide.

And Mastriano seemed to call back to the summer of 2020, when racial justice protests erupted across the nation, in promising that he "won't hesitate to assist local law enforcement with State Police and National Guard to protect law-abiding citizens and businesses during periods of mass unrest and riots." Many Republicans, including Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton and Trump, argued at the time that the U.S. military should have been deployed domestically against protesters.

A section about guns has been moved higher up on the campaign website's issues page.

His policies have been too extreme even for his fellow Republicans. Ahead of the primary, several other GOP candidates dropped out to thin the field in an 11th-hour attempt to prevent Mastriano from winning the nomination. Following Mastriano's primary victory, 16 prominent state Republicans endorsed Shapiro because of concerns about Mastriano's extremism. Mastriano's first television ad focuses on his military record rather than his divisive political views.

"It's important for me that I bring everyone along with me and give everyone a hope and opportunity," Mastriano says at the end of the ad. "I want every Pennsylvanian to know that I will have their back."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.