The Trump loyalist who could be a major threat to US democracy

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP</span>
Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

As Donald Trump tried to overturn the results of the 2020 election, there were few officials more willing to help than Doug Mastriano, then a little-known Pennsylvania state senator.

Mastriano, a retired army colonel first elected in 2019, regularly communicated with Trump in the weeks after the election. He helped arrange a pseudo-hearing weeks after election day in which the Trump campaign presented baseless claims of fraud. Mastriano helped facilitate a plan to appoint a fake set of electors in Pennsylvania for Trump after Joe Biden won the state by more than 80,000 votes. He embraced and promoted a fringe, anti-democratic legal theory that state legislatures can override the results of an election and appoint its own electors. He was also at the US Capitol on January 6, and helped bus supporters there. He pushed an unofficial review of election equipment that prompted the state to decertify election machines in a county. He has been subpoenaed by the January 6 committee. He supported efforts to decertify the election, which is legally impossible.

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This week, Republican voters in Pennsylvania nominated Mastriano to be their governor.

If elected this fall, there seems to be little doubt Mastriano would be willing to use his power to reject the results of a free and fair election in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state in US presidential elections. As governor, he would be responsible for certifying the election, and could refuse to sign off on an outcome he disagrees with. He would also be responsible for appointing a secretary of state, charged with overseeing elections in the state and signing off on the results. (Pennsylvania is one of three states where the secretary of state is appointed, not elected.)

“We really need voters to be paying attention to how dangerous it is to have someone in a position like the governor who does not believe in the elections or in our system, who has cast so much doubt on the 2020 elections and would be in a great position of power,” said Lizzie Ulmer, senior vice-president for communications at States United Action, which is tracking election deniers running for office across the US. “It’s really important to not fall into that trap of thinking ‘OK, these are really extreme candidates.’ Because they’re not fringe candidates, they’re raising money. They’re campaigning on these issues.”

David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, said: “If a governor would not certify an election in which his candidate lost, which had been upheld by the courts and election officials throughout the state, that’s incredibly dangerous – period. That’s incredibly dangerous in a state where that governor gets to appoint the chief election official, who might share similar inclinations.”

While Becker has said courts would ultimately thwart any effort to block the certification of a lawful election, Becker said he was worried about the confusion that would arise from a governor refusing to accept election results.

“I am very concerned about what happens in the meantime. And what messages are used to inflame the base of the losing party to act in a way that is anti-democratic and perhaps violent,” he said. Mastriano is one of a number of candidates who refuse to accept the results of the 2020 election and are seeking elected offices in which they would play a key role in overseeing the 2024 election. Candidates in Michigan and Minnesota have already earned their party’s nomination and there is a closely watched primary for the top election office in Georgia on Tuesday.

“What we’ve seen is that there are a number of elected officials within the Republican caucus that are still advocating or supporting this notion that the 2020 presidential elections were stolen,” said Khalif Ali, the executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of Common Cause. “We’re not just talking about a gubernatorial race, we’re talking about the very essence of democracy in this state and in this country.”

Mastriano has embraced the possibility of getting to overturn an election, saying he already has a secretary of state picked out (he has declined to say who). “I get to appoint the secretary of state, who is delegated from me the power to make the corrections to elections, the voting logs and everything. I could decertify every machine in the state with the stroke of a pen,” he said in a March radio interview.

“He’s saying that part out loud,” said Ulmer. “It goes to show just how prevalent and mainstream the far right and the big lie supporters have made this issue. It’s so wild to think about. They really are campaigning, raising money, and generating a lot of interest and support from carrying this thing forward.”

Mastriano has also said he might “reset” voter registration in Pennsylvania and “start all over”, something that would probably violate federal law. He has pledged to eliminate the state’s contract with “compromised voting machine companies”, even though there’s no evidence any machines were compromised in 2020. He wants to end no-excuse mail-in voting, which passed the state legislature with Republican support.

Mastriano, who grew up in New Jersey, joined the military in 1986, and was deployed to the West German-Czechoslovakia border before being sent to Iraq, according to a New Yorker profile of him last year. A few years ago, he began attending events hosted by the New Apostolic Reformation, a group whose goal it is “to return the United States to an idealized Christian past”, according to the New Yorker. He is often described as a Christian nationalist, embracing the belief that America should be a Christian nation.

Beyond elections, Mastriano has embraced other extreme policies. He has signaled his support for a complete ban on abortion, with no exceptions for rape or incest. He railed against Covid-19 restrictions, at one point falsely questioning whether mRNA vaccines were actually vaccines. He has supported legislation that would require teaching the Bible in public schools, according to the New Yorker, and allow adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples. If elected, Mastriano has pledged to be more conservative than some of the most conservative governors in the country.

“You guys think Ron DeSantis is good? Amateur,” Mastriano cracked, adding: “We love you, Ron, but this is Pennsylvania. This is where the light of liberty was set in 1776, where this nation was born,” he said earlier this month, according to NBC News.

He has promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory, and spoke at a conference in April organized by far-right activists who have promoted the movement.

Ulmer, from States United and Ali, from Common Cause, both said it would be a mistake to dismiss Mastriano as too extreme to win a statewide election.

“I take every candidate who has won their party’s nomination seriously,” Ali said. “He’s made a number of inflammatory statements, and I think we should absolutely believe him and take him seriously as the Republican nominee.”