The extremely online rise of Doug Mastriano

Campaign signs for Doug Mastriano, state senator and Republican gubernatorial candidate from Pennsylvania, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, at a rally in Pittsburgh, Aug. 19, 2022. (Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times)

BLOOMSBURG, Pa. — Early in the pandemic, Diane Fisher, a nurse from Weatherly, Pa., was browsing Facebook videos when she came across a live stream from Doug Mastriano, a Pennsylvania state senator.

Beginning in late March 2020, Mastriano had regularly broadcast on Facebook from his living room, offering his increasingly strident denunciations of state quarantine policies and answering questions from his viewers, sometimes up to six nights a week and for an hour at a stretch.

“People were upset and they were scared of certain things,” Fisher said. “And he was telling us what was going on.”

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Fisher told family and friends about what Mastriano called “fireside chats,” after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio broadcasts during the Depression and World War II. “The next thing you knew,” she recalled, “there were 5,000 people watching.”

Mastriano’s rise from an obscure and inexperienced far-right politician to a Republican flag bearer in the race for governor of Pennsylvania has been swift, stunning and fueled by social media. Although he is perhaps best known for challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election and calling the separation of church and state a “myth,” Mastriano has built his base of support on its use. Facebook’s innovation in the crucible of the first pandemic, connecting directly with anxious and isolated Americans who have become an unusually loyal base for its main campaign.

He is now the GOP nominee in perhaps the nation’s most watched gubernatorial race, in part because it would put a 2020 election denier in control of a major battleground state’s electoral system. President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are making campaign appearances in Pennsylvania this week. As the race enters its final months, one of the central questions is whether the online mobilization that Mastriano has successfully waged against his own party will prove equally effective against Josh Shapiro, his Democratic rival – or whether a political movement nurtured in the right-wing nursery – social media discontent will not be able or willing to transcend it.

Mastriano continued to run a campaign that defied convention. It employs political neophytes in key positions and has for months refused to interact with top national and local reporters beyond kicking them out of events. (His campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this article.)

He grants interviews almost exclusively to friendly radio and TV shows and podcasts that share Mastriano’s far-right politics, and continues to rely heavily on Facebook to reach voters directly.

“It’s the best-executed and most sweeping ‘ghost media’ strategy this cycle,” said Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser, who said other Republican strategists were watching closely. example of Mastriano.

“This has never been done before. He’s on a spacewalk,” he said. “And the question we all ask ourselves is, is he coming back to the capsule?”

Although Mastriano no longer hosts fireside chats, his campaign posts several times more often per day on Facebook than most candidates, according to Kyle Tharp, the author of the FWIW newsletter, which tracks digital politics. His campaign’s Facebook posting engagements have been comparable to Shapiro’s, despite Shapiro’s much larger spending on digital advertising.

“He’s an experienced Facebook user,” Tharp said.

But Mastriano’s campaign has done little to expand his reach outside of his loyal base, even though polls since the primary have consistently shown him trailing Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s attorney general, though often just. And Mastriano’s efforts to grow his right-wing following through advertising on Gab, a platform favored by white nationalists, prompted a rare retreat in the face of criticism last month.

A career Army officer until his retirement in 2017 and a hardline social conservative, Mastriano won a special election for the state Senate in 2019 after campaigning against his opposition to what he described such as the “barbaric holocaust” of legal abortion and his view that the United States is an inherently Christian nation whose Constitution is incompatible with other religions. But he was little known outside his district until he started his pandemic broadcasts in late March 2020.

In the live videos, Mastriano was unguarded and emotional at times, giving friendly shouts at familiar names in the chat window. His fireside chats came at a fertile time on the platform, when conservative and right-wing activists were using Facebook to bring together new organizations and campaigns to convert discontent into action – first with the COVID lockdowns and, later, the result of the 2020 elections.

Mastriano tied himself closely to these currents of activism in his home country, speaking out at protests and group events. A video he streamed live from the first major anti-lockdown rally on the steps of the State Capitol in Harrisburg in April 2020, armed with a selfie stick, eventually racked up more than 850,000 views.

After the presidential election was called for Biden on Nov. 7, 2020, Mastriano was greeted as a star at the first “Stop the Steal” rally at the Harrisburg Capitol that afternoon. He has become one of the most prominent faces of the movement to void the Pennsylvania election, working with Trump lawyers to publicize the widely debunked allegations of electoral malfeasance and to send a list of “substitute” voters to Washington, on the false legal theory that they could be used to overturn the outcome. (He would later be present at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, although there is no evidence that he entered the building.)

When Republican colleagues in the state Senate criticized those schemes and Mastriano by name, he pointed out the size of his army online.

“I have more Facebook followers than the other 49 senators combined,” Mastriano told Steve Turley, a local right-wing podcast host, in an interview. “That any coworker or fellow Republican would think it would be a good idea to throw me under the bus with that kind of reach — I mean, they’re just not very smart people.”

Mastriano was eventually removed from his position as chairman of a state Senate committee overseeing an investigation he had championed into the state’s election results, and he was subsequently kicked out of the Republican caucus of the state. Senate — episodes that bolstered his credentials with supporters wary of the state’s GOP establishment. His gubernatorial campaign, which he officially announced in January, has built not only on the base he has cultivated since 2020, but also on the right-wing grassroots groups he has made common cause with. on COVID and the 2020 elections.

“This whole movement is rock solid behind it,” said Sam Faddis, the leader of UnitePA, a self-proclaimed patriot group based in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania.

When UnitePA held a rally Aug. 27 at a horse riding arena in Bloomsburg, bringing together a coalition of state groups dedicated to overhauling the electoral system they say was used to steal the election from Trump, many activists who spoke praised Mastriano and his candidacy. From the stage, Tabitha Valleau, the leader of the FreePA organization, gave detailed instructions on how to volunteer for Mastriano’s campaign.

The crowd of around 500, most of whom stayed for the entire nearly six-hour rally, was packed with Mastriano supporters, including Fisher. “He helped us through a bad time,” she said. “He stayed with his people.”

Charlie Gerow, a former Pennsylvania Republican agent and gubernatorial candidate who lost to Mastriano in May, said that loyal following was Mastriano’s greatest strength. “He leveraged that audience in every assignment he took on,” he said.

But with recent polls showing Mastriano trailing Shapiro by 3-10 points, Gerow is among strategists who doubt his main strategy will translate into a general electorate.

“I think it will be important for him to run a more traditional campaign, dealing with the regular media even when it’s unpleasant and hostile,” Gerow said.

Mastriano has also been criticized for his efforts to expand his social media reach beyond Facebook and Twitter into newer, more fringe spaces on the right.

In July, liberal watchdog group Media Matters noted that Mastriano, according to his campaign materials, paid $5,000 to far-right social media platform Gab, which rose to prominence in 2018 after the suspect was charged in the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were killed, used the platform to detail his racist and anti-Semitic views and his plans for the shooting. Gab chief executive Andrew Torba, who lives in Pennsylvania, has himself made anti-Semitic statements and attended a white nationalist conference this spring.

Torba and Mastriano had congratulated each other in a podcast interview in May, after which Mastriano spoke hopefully about Gab’s audience. “Apparently about a million of them are in Pennsylvania,” he said on his own livestream, “so we’ll have good reach.”

Torba, who did not respond to email requests for comment, continued to defend Mastriano, describing the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race as “the most important midterm election of 2022 because Doug is a Christian. frank,” in a video he posted in late July. . He added: “We are going to take back this country for the glory of God.

After initially holding out, Mastriano eventually gave in to heavy criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike and closed his personal account with Gab earlier this month, issuing a brief statement denouncing anti-Semitism.

This month, Shapiro, who is Jewish, spent $1 million on TV ads highlighting Mastriano’s ties to Gab. “We can’t allow this to normalize – Doug Mastriano is dangerous and extreme, and we need to defeat him in November,” Shapiro campaign spokesman Will Simons said.

The push reflected the view that one of Mastriano’s key vulnerabilities lies in his vast online footprint, with his hours of freewheeling conversation in spaces frequented by far-right voices.

Still, some Democrats who have watched Mastriano’s rapid rise closely have cautioned against his exclusion. “Mastriano has been underestimated by his own party,” said Brit Crampsie, a political consultant who until recently served as spokeswoman for the state Senate Democrats. “I’m afraid he’s underrated by Democrats. I wouldn’t rule him out.

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