Last week, a group of faith leaders and elected officials gathered at the Holocaust memorial in Philadelphia, where they disagreed with Republican Gov. Doug Mastriano for his campaign using an online hate speech paradise.
It was part of a steadily mounting wave of condemnation that has dogged Mastriano since first reports that he has paid far-right social media platform Gab for campaign advice and garnered the endorsement of founder Andrew Torba as a Christian nationalist candidate.
Founded in 2016, Gab rose to prominence as an alt-right alternative to Facebook and Twitter when those platforms began aggressively policing hate speech.
The speakers, which included Democratic officials and ministers from Jewish, Christian and Islamic communities, warned Republicans considering backing Mastriano that his governorship would be a step too far.
“There’s no going back from this,” State Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, said during Wednesday’s news briefing.
Frankel’s district is the scene of the nation’s largest anti-Jewish terrorist attack in 2018 at the Tree of Life Synagogue. Gab was the platform on which the shooter of the Tree of Life, who killed 11 members of the synagogue while praying, laid anti-Semitic screeds before the shooting.
As an outlet for Mastriano’s campaign messages, Gab became a conduit for rampant anti-Semitic attacks on Mastriano’s Democratic opponent, Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish.
“You can’t do business with these people claiming to represent all Pennsylvanians. If you embrace anti-Semites and racists and homophobes and xenophobes, then you’re one of them,” Frankel said.
Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, said Mastriano’s affiliations with Gab anti-Semitism and his involvement in efforts to overthrow the 2020 presidential election make him unfit to serve as governor.
“If Doug Mastriano were governor, he couldn’t be credible in standing by the victims of the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue and saying I feel their pain and will make sure we hold those who did it accountable.” We couldn’t trust him as governor,” Kenyatta said.
November’s election must be a rejection of white supremacist violence, anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia, Kenyatta said.
“Riot Doug can’t be Governor Doug. He’s an insurgent. And frankly, he should be investigated, not promoted to Commonwealth Governor,” Kenyatta said.
On Thursday, Mastriano seemed to at least acknowledge the poor visuals of looking for votes from Gab users. Mastriano removed his profile from Gab and released a statement distancing himself from the racist and bigoted remarks made by its users and its founder.
“Andrew Torba doesn’t speak for me or my campaign,” Mastriano said in the statement on Twitter. “The recent smear campaigns by Democrats and the media are blatant attempts to distract Pennsylvanians from the suffering inflicted on them by Democrat policies.
“While extremist speech is an unfortunate but inevitable livelihood in a free society, extremist politics is not — and the only candidate in this election looking to impose extreme policies on Pennsylvania — inflation, crime, lockdowns and mandates — is Josh Shapiro.” , it said in Mastriano’s statement.
Shapiro’s campaign and his allies said Mastriano’s testimony and departure from Gab rang hollow in the face of his statements and actions elsewhere.
“Doug Mastriano’s deep support for Andrew Torba and Gab goes so far as to literally thank God for Torba’s efforts to bring racist, anti-Semitic extremism into our communities – the very extremism that motivated the killer of Tree of Life, the Torba platform used 11 Jews in Pittsburgh shortly before the murder,” said Shapiro’s campaign spokesman Manuel Bonder.
“His refusal to denounce Gab and the vicious hatred on which his campaign is based is simply further proof that he is far too dangerous to be governor of Pennsylvania,” Bonder said.
Jill Zipin, chair of the Democratic Jewish Outreach PA, said if Mastriano intended to cut ties with Gab and Torba he would have to demand the $5,000 his campaign paid to the company and denounce Torba’s anti-Semitic remarks.
“We don’t want people who are atheists. We don’t want Jews. We don’t want people who are unbelievers, agnostics or whatever. This is an explicitly Christian movement because this is an explicitly Christian country,” Torba said in a livestream earlier this month.
In livestream comments this week, Torba responded to criticism of Mastriano by saying, “We no longer bend the knee to the 2 percent,” in an apparent reference to the approximate representation of the Jewish people in the US population.
“To say that he is not an anti-Semite does not make that statement true,” Zipin said.
“He has to say, ‘I don’t want these people to vote for me.’ He has to say: “I don’t stand for white supremacy and anti-Semitism. I don’t accept your votes,'” Zipin said.
Muhlenberg College pollster Chris Borrick said poll numbers released Thursday may have prompted Mastriano to try to distance himself from Torba and Gab.
A Fox News poll shows voters in Pennsylvania back Shapiro over Mastriano by a margin of 50-40 percent. It also shows that Shapiro’s supporters are more enthusiastic than Mastriano’s, with 69 percent saying they are enthusiastic about backing the Democratic candidate, compared to 49 percent who said they are enthusiastic about Mastriano.
“Mastriano feels he needs to take some significant steps to increase his competitiveness in this race. That’s no longer the Republican area code. This is a national race in a very important swing state,” Borrick said.
Mastriano has also resisted criticism that his policies, such as banning abortion without exception, requiring all voters to re-register and his promotion of the “big lie” that voter fraud has cost former President Donald Trump the re-election , are extreme.
In a Wednesday livestream on his Facebook page, Mastrino said the fact that he’s been screened at least eight times during his career as a US officer shows he’s not extreme.
“The army removed people because of extreme views and membership of extreme organizations,” Mastriano said.
Borrick said Mastriano must convince voters that he is not as extreme as Shapiro’s campaign will try to portray him.
“That’s a steep climb. His record of statements, positions and actions creates a wealth of evidence that Shapiro and Democrats can use to portray him as extreme,” Borrick said.
Neil Oxman, a Democrat veteran from many Pennsylvania campaigns, said Mastriano may not be able to overcome the fact that moderate Republicans view him as an unacceptable candidate.
Shapiro is likely to receive votes from moderate Southeast Pennsylvania Republicans and Southwest Regan Democrats who have either turned Republican or voted more conservative. If not for President Joe Biden’s falling approval ratings and the inflationary crisis, Shapiro would likely win a landslide victory, according to the latest poll, Oxman said.
“Those are the numbers you have after a 20-week campaign in which your opponent spent millions of dollars trying to take you down,” Oxman said.