In an election season in which inflation and high gas prices have given most Republicans an edge, Mastriano has spent the past few weeks under fire for his ties to a far-right social media platform. He had an account this year on Gab, the site where Robert Bowers made violent antisemitic comments before the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Mastriano also told Gab CEO Andrew Torba in an interview, “Thank God for what you’ve done,” and paid the site $5,000 for “consulting” services.
“People that were not happy with his nomination — this is why,” said Josh Novotney, a GOP consultant in Pennsylvania. “Because it’s like, ‘When’s the other shoe going to drop too? What else is out there?’ is what I think more people are saying and thinking.”
The response to the episode within the Republican Party has taken on a Trump-esque quality. Some party insiders are grumbling about what they see as Mastriano’s unforced error, largely privately, and a small handful of Republican candidates in competitive districts are distancing themselves from him. But most GOP leaders, at least publicly, appear to be sticking by Mastriano’s side.
“The guy spent $5,000 — $5,000 — consulting or trying to advertise on a social media platform. How much does Josh Shapiro spend on Twitter, or how much does Josh Shapiro spend on Facebook, which has been used by any number of recent mass murderers?” said Sam DeMarco, chair of the Republican Party in Allegheny County, one of the most populous areas in the state. “I thought Sen. Mastriano did the right thing and said, ‘Hey, these people don’t speak for me.’”
Though Republican officials in the state have not abandoned him in the race against Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor, Mastriano has been forced to attempt to contain the fallout from the Gab controversy. Torba, the Gab CEO, has made antisemitic comments and said his “policy is not to conduct interviews with reporters who aren’t Christian or with outlets who aren’t Christian, and Doug has a very similar media strategy where he does not do interviews with these people.”
In response, Mastriano said in a statement on Twitter that Torba “doesn’t speak for me” and that “I reject antisemitism in any form.” And he appears to have deleted his Gab account.
Mastriano also discussed the matter at a recent campaign stop and on a conservative YouTube show. “We need to have a level playing field here. The ADL … they said that Twitter in one year had 4.2 million antisemitic tweets. OK, I’m calling on my opponent Josh Shapiro to renounce Twitter, to get off Twitter,” he told Chris Wyatt.
(In a statement for this story, Shapiro spokesperson Will Simons said “Mastriano’s warm embrace of extremists like Andrew Torba, the Three Percenters, and QAnon is further proof that he is far too dangerous to be Governor of Pennsylvania.”)
Mastriano has done cleanup behind the scenes as well. At a fundraiser for the gubernatorial nominee last Wednesday in the Philadelphia suburbs, Mastriano addressed the reports about Gab, said Andy Reilly, a Republican National Committeeman who hosted the event.
“He just on his own, immediately, early in his comments denounced antisemitism, said what he believed, said he’d been in the military his whole life and worked with people of all faiths, and he’s a great believer in protecting people’s faiths and even protecting people who are atheists from not having a faith,” said Reilly. “Being 30 years in the military, you would never even survive if you had hateful beliefs like that.”
Though some wish he would have condemned Gab more quickly and forcefully, Mastriano’s efforts appear to have been successful in preventing any major defections from his party so far. Last Thursday, Mastriano met privately with Pennsylvania congressional members in Washington, D.C. He posted the statement about Gab hours later, and then announced this week that all but one of the nine GOP House members from the state endorsed him.
“Pennsylvania’s families are struggling to put gas in their cars and food on their tables,” they said in a joint statement. “Progressive policies supported by Joe Biden and Josh Shapiro have led to fewer jobs, higher crime rates, rampant drug addiction, and less freedom for Pennsylvania’s hard-working families.”
Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant, said the Gab controversy has not stopped Republicans from coalescing behind Mastriano in the post-primary period.
“People clued into the Gab stuff are people that were already never going to support Mastriano, and that was reason No. 217,” he said, adding that though Mastriano took a while to put out his statement on Gab, it was a “good” response.
Reilly said the reaction among Republicans has been that “simply because he used it to advertise doesn’t mean he embraced the views” and “no one has come to me complaining about it.”
Blake Marles, chair of the Northeast Central Republican Alliance in Pennsylvania, said, “I don’t have any idea what Doug’s history has been with various ethnic groups or racial groups as a leader in the military. I can’t imagine that they would have been in any manner negative or he wouldn’t have become a colonel.”
He called Torba “antisemitic” and said that Mastriano made a “political mistake, but I don’t know if it was a knowing one.”
To the extent that Republicans are expressing frustration about Mastriano’s links to Gab, it is largely happening so far behind closed doors, not in public recrimination. Some GOP insiders said the incident was precisely the kind of thing they’d feared would happen when they opposed him in the primary. Others even compared it to being forced to constantly respond to Trump’s explosive comments.
“I just shake my head,” said a Pennsylvania Republican county chair who requested anonymity to speak frankly. “Does he really want to win this?”
One GOP activist who has talked publicly about his concerns is Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks. Last month, he urged Mastriano “to end his association with Gab, a social network rightly seen by Jewish Americans as a cesspool of bigotry and antisemitism.”
A few Republican elected officials in swing districts have also kept Mastriano at arm’s length. State Rep. Todd Stephens, who represents parts of the moderate Philadelphia suburbs, posted on Facebook that the Gab CEO “made disgusting, antisemitic comments” and “[n]othing short of a total rejection is warranted.”
Another Republican in the Philadelphia suburbs, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, was the state’s lone GOP House member who did not endorse Mastriano. He did not attend the meeting with him last week either, according to multiple sources, though a staff member went.
Nancy McCarty, a spokesperson for Fitzpatrick, said he was “attending an Intelligence meeting” at the time and “has yet to meet and/or speak with Sen. Mastriano regarding his plan for Pennsylvania, but hopes to have the chance to do so prior to the Fall elections.”
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), who is retiring this year, has not said whether he is endorsing Mastriano. In 2016, Toomey declined to reveal whether he would support Trump until Election Day, when he announced he had voted for him.
Mastriano’s campaign, which has declined to engage with most mainstream media outlets, did not respond to a request for comment.
Mastriano is part of a small but growing cohort of Republican candidates and elected officials with ties to Gab or its founder, Torba.
Kathy Barnette, who finished in third in the 2022 Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary and often campaigned with Mastriano, spent at least $3,000 on “online services.” Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) campaign paid at least $36,000 last year for “digital marketing.”
Perhaps most prominent after Mastriano is Mark Finchem, an Arizona state lawmaker and 2020 election conspiracy theorist who captured the Republican Party nomination for secretary of state on Tuesday. Finchem, who has an active account on Gab under the name “AZHoneyBadger,” proudly touts the endorsement of Torba on his campaign website.
Finchem was part of a slate of Arizona candidates that Torba said he backed, including state legislator Wendy Rogers, who was censured by the state Senate after talking about hanging “traitors” from the gallows at a white nationalist conference. Rogers, who Mastriano endorsed, also won her primary Tuesday.
But for other candidates in that slate, Torba was a bridge too far. A spokesperson for Kari Lake, the Trump-endorsed former TV anchor leading in the too-close-to-call governor’s race, told the Arizona Mirror that “the [campaign] absolutely denounces bigotry in all its forms, especially antisemitism. We have never sought this endorsement.” (Lake has a Gab account, but she has not posted on it since early January.)
Blake Masters, the GOP Senate nominee in Arizona, also said in a statement to the Mirror that “I’ve never heard of this guy and I reject his support,” saying that the only people who cared about his endorsement was the media because he was a “nobody.”
Zach Montellaro contributed to this report.