Among the more fringe candidates who muscled their way onto the sputtering G.O.P. rocket ship this year, Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor in Pennsylvania, might be the purest of MAGA true believers: an election-denying, vaccine-dismissing, QAnon-espousing, self-proclaimed Christian nationalist and Confederate cosplayer. As Larry Ceisler, a Philly-based political communications strategist told me about Mastriano, “He truly believes that God is talking to him. And God wants him to run MAGA.” Ceisler is a Democrat, but he’s not wrong: Mastriano led a prayer session on Jan 5., 2021, calling on God to help Trump “seize the power.” The next day, he marched on the Capitol.
Mastriano’s radical brand of post-Trumpian politics has been a tough sell with Pennsylvania’s general election voters. After beating nine less zany Republican rivals with a whopping 42.3 percent of the primary vote, Mastriano is now lagging his Democratic rival, the state attorney general Josh Shapiro, by somewhere between 3 and 11 points, depending on the poll. That’s worse than expected given the G.O.P.’s structural advantages this cycle, but it’s basically in line with Dr. Mehmet Oz’s performance against John Fetterman, also in Pennsylvania. And, frankly, it’s still within striking distance of Shapiro, especially if the polls are off. Mastriano still has time, in theory, to modulate some of his hard-right positions, as Blake Masters has done in Arizona, or to engage traditional media, to capture the moderate voters he needs.
But Mastriano, thus far, has evidenced zero ability to pivot. He barely has a relationship with the Republican Governors Association, the organization that’s supposed to be working on his behalf, and he’s been downright hostile toward the mainstream press—not just national outlets like The New York Times, but also local television and radio stations in Pennsylvania. Instead, he’s deliberately limited his media exposure to digital livestreams with far right internet personalities, such as Real America’s Voice and the Chris Stigall Show, and appearances on Newsmax, OAN and Steve Bannon’s War Room. His campaign rallies are functionally closed to the press. He’s beefed with Breitbart and ignored Fox News, very occasionally talking to their digital team but otherwise ignoring their cable arm.
The closest that any non-MAGA journalist has gotten to interviewing Mastriano was when the Washington Examiner’s national political columnist, Salena Zito, approached Mastriano at a Turning Point Action rally that he held with Ron DeSantis in August. Initially waved through by a Turning Point representative, Zito immediately found herself blocked by a Mastriano staffer. “He said, ‘Well, you’re not going to talk to Mastriano. That’s not happening today. You’ve not been nice to him,’” Zito told me. She wasn’t surprised: like dozens of other journalists covering the Pennsylvania governor’s race—both national and local—Zito had already experienced the pointy end of the Mastriano campaign’s non-press strategy. Indeed, there have been numerous reports of journalists being explicitly barred from entering his rallies by armed security, and shoved out of Mastriano’s path, to say nothing of having requests for comment even returned. (True to form, the Mastriano campaign did not respond to my requests for comment.)
I was surprised because Zito, who’s also a columnist for the New York Post, is hardly the stereotypical Fake News stooge. In fact, she’s drawn mainstream scorn and Never-Trump hatred, as well as praise from outlets like The Federalist, for her sympathetic profiles of Trump voters. Nevertheless, earlier in the summer Zito had committed the apparently unforgivable sin of writing a column asking why Mastriano was avoiding the media. The affront had not been forgotten two months later when she was stiff-armed by the Mastriano staffer, who told Zito that the campaign would reconsider her access to the candidate if she was “nicer” in the future. Zito was baffled. “I’m like, this is not a transactional relationship,” she told me. “I mean, our job is to ask the questions that voters want to know.”
“What Is He Hiding?”
The bunker media strategy may have worked in Mastriano’s favor during the G.O.P. primaries. While he faced more than a dozen candidates in the primary, several of whom were pro-Trump stalwarts like Rep. Lou Barletta, Mastriano took his campaign off the grid with a grassroots coalition of election skeptics and QAnon sympathizers, cultivated largely on Facebook. In the end, he trounced his more moderate opponents, despite several of them dropping out in a last-minute bid to coalesce around an establishment challenger. A belated endorsement from Donald Trump helped seal the deal.
And Mastriano has kept to that strategy, so far, during the general election, even going so far as to refuse to attend any debates unless he can pick the moderator himself. Last week, he posted a video on his Facebook page with a screenshot of an article titled “Doug Mastriano’s Ghosting of Media in PA Guv Race Brilliant, Working: Experts.” (Replied one follower: “Stick to it Doug! It’s working!”)
The safe-space strategy, I’m told, was the brainchild of Mark Serrano, the C.E.O. of the conservative firm Proactive Communications, which also consulted on Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign. But if it’s supposed to reflect the middle-fingers-to-the-media ethos of the MAGA movement’s leader, it also has a massive blind spot. “Even Donald Trump engaged with the news media day in and day out. In fact, he relished it, even though he argued and battled with them every chance he had,” noted Jim Schultz, a former Trump White House counsel and a Pennsylvania Republican supporting Shapiro. “Mastriano’s apparent strategy of ignoring the news media and insulating himself from any accountability makes no sense. The question everyone should have is ‘what is he hiding?’”
It’s a hard question to answer, for that very reason. Mastriano’s media quarantine on conspiracy island has forced journalists to make near-herculean efforts to dredge up info on the would-be governor, such as scouring fringe websites that are practically unknown outside of MAGA world. (Have you ever heard of The Wendy Bell Show?) The result has helped to insulate Mastriano’s public profile as a suit-and-tie-wearing gubernatorial candidate from his downright nutty private life. (Mastriano was scheduled to speak at an event for a church that worships the AR-15 assault rifle, for example.)
And for a certain number of voters, it’s working. There are plenty of Republicans in Pennsylvania who are fine closing their eyes and pulling the lever for the guy with the R next to his name, and the less they know about him, the better. But Mastriano’s refusal to engage with the press, and his aversion to traditional television advertising, has also given Shapiro endless opportunities to define his opponent. “They’re not allowing Mastriano to normalize himself,” Ceisler told me, referring to Democratic attacks. “That’s why they keep pushing out the anti-Semitic stuff, the Confederate stuff, all of that.”
With six weeks in the race left, it’s unclear whether Mastriano can get over the near-infinite number of hurdles in his way—a severe lack of money, a paltry ad budget, a record of insanity miles long—or even get out of his own way. If there’s a silver lining for Republicans, it’s that Mastriano won’t necessarily drag down Oz, or vice versa, since Pennsylvania allows voters to split their votes across multiple parties on the same ballot. “I was just out in Somerset County and Westmoreland County, and I saw signs that had Shapiro and Oz in them,” Zito told me. Good news for Oz, perhaps, but it’s hardly the portent that the G.O.P. needs.