HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Donald Trump on Saturday endorsed Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania’s Republican primary for governor, siding with a far-right candidate who was outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection and has worked with determination to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Mastriano was already leading a crowded field of contenders, and the former president’s endorsement puts him on even stronger footing heading into Tuesday’s primary.
But there are growing fears from party leaders that Mastriano, a state senator and retired U.S. Army colonel, is too extreme to beat Democrat Josh Shapiro in November’s general election and could drag down other Republicans competing in the pivotal state. That includes a U.S. Senate contest in which Trump is trying to lift his endorsed candidate to victory in a highly competitive race.
Mastriano has, for example, helped spread unsubstantiated claims from Trump and his allies that Democrats fraudulently stole the election for Joe Biden — something that Trump seized on in his endorsement statement.
“There is no one in Pennsylvania who has done more, or fought harder, for Election Integrity than State Senator Doug Mastriano,” Trump wrote. “He has revealed the Deceit, Corruption, and outright Theft of the 2020 Presidential Election, and will do something about it.”
Trump called Mastriano “a fighter like few others, and has been with me right from the beginning, and now I have an obligation to be with him.”
Besides campaigning with key figures in Trump’s circle who have spread lies about the last election, Mastriano also floated a plan to let state lawmakers wipe out that election result and make their own decision on which candidate should receive the state’s electoral votes.
As a result he was subpoenaed by the U.S. House committee investigating the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
Mastriano has said he would take the extraordinary step of requiring voters to “re-register” to vote. “We’re going to start all over again,” he said during a debate last month.
Such a move is barred by the National Voter Registration Act and likely runs into significant protections under the federal — and possibly state — constitution and laws, constitutional law scholars say.
After the election, Mastriano boasted to supporters in online chats about his frequent talks with Trump. Mastriano organized bus trips to the U.S. Capitol for Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally just before the riot, where Mastriano was seen in footage with his wife passing through breached barricades set up by police.
Trump was torn on the endorsement decision in the governor’s race.
Some allies desperately urged him to stay out of the race or to endorse a Mastriano rival, such as Lou Barletta, a former congressman who was the party’s Trump-endorsed nominee for U.S. Senate in 2018.
Mastriano is leading the nine-person field of Republican candidates, with party officials and conservatives believing that votes for more electable establishment candidates are too splintered to head off his consolidation of far-right voters.
On Friday, Mastriano told former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s online “War Room” broadcast that the Republican establishment “is panicking, I mean, literally wetting themselves” at the prospect that he will be the nominee.
In a statement Saturday, Mastriano said he was “honored” to receive Trump’s endorsement and he cited Pennsylvanians “who want their individual liberties restored, power returned to the people, and for their elected leaders to fulfill the America First — and Pennsylvania First — agenda.”
“Our grassroots supporters across Pennsylvania know that Donald Trump and I will always have their backs,” Mastriano wrote. “We are all committed to ending the era of party bosses, dark money interest groups, and flawed elections.”
Barletta has spent the past few days accumulating establishment endorsements, including from members of Congress. He has avoided criticizing Mastriano by name, other than trying to make the case that he is the most electable candidate in the primary.
On Saturday, he maintained that he could still beat Mastriano.
“I will continue making the case to the people that I am the only candidate who can unite the party and bring victory in November. I look forward to having President Trump’s endorsement Wednesday morning,” Barletta wrote.
Trump’s top focus in Pennsylvania has been the Senate primary, where his endorsed candidate, celebrity heart surgeon Mehmet Oz, is seen as vulnerable.
In many cases, rank-and-file Republican voters, conservative activists and pro-Trump hard-liners have refused to back Oz just because Trump does.
Some allies had tried to convince the former president that backing Mastriano would hurt Oz because Mastriano has closely aligned and campaigned with one of Oz’s rivals, Kathy Barnette.
But as Trump worries about Oz’s chances, endorsing Mastriano is seen as a means to protect his ego, providing a likely win if Oz ends up losing.
Republicans worry in particular that Mastriano is too toxic to win moderate voters in the heavily populated suburbs of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in November. Critics fear he will endanger down-ballot GOP candidates with a lackluster top-of-the-ticket turnout.
Still, Barletta has acknowledged there is very little in policy difference between himself and Mastriano.
Republicans have been shut out of the governor’s office in Pennsylvania since 2014 under Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who is barred by term limits from running again.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin in New York contributed to this report.