Election 2022

No pressure: Pa.’s Josh Shapiro is being painted as the potential savior of democracy

National voices say Pennsylvania’s next executive could wield great influence over the 2024 presidential election, and the country’s future.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro during an abortion rights rally at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in May

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro during an abortion rights rally at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in May

Emma Lee / WHYY
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Does the future of American democracy depend on Josh Shapiro? National commentators, columnists, and reporters are pinning the responsibility on the Pennsylvania attorney general who just locked up the Democratic nomination for governor.

“It is up to Josh Shapiro to save America,” MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell said last week.

The Republican nominee for governor is Doug Mastriano, a state legislator from South Central Pa. who rose to prominence as one of the leading voices alleging massive election fraud in 2020.

Mastriano has said he wants to eliminate no-excuse mail voting and ballot drop boxes, as well as clear the state’s voter rolls so all residents would have to re-register. As governor, he would be responsible for appointing Pa.’s secretary of state, who oversees elections.

The chorus of journalists and analysts summarizing the stakes of the race have noted that Trump tried to influence Georgia’s secretary of state to alter vote counts in 2020, and they worry a similar attempt would be successful in 2024 if Mastriano is governor.

“This is not politics as usual,” Dan Hopkins, a political science professor at University of Pennsylvania, told Billy Penn.

The ominous framing and intense attention puts a great deal of pressure on Shapiro, said Marge Baker of People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy organization. “Our democracy is truly hanging in the balance,” Baker said.

It’s not as though Shapiro is surprised by the stakes. Back in January, on the one-year anniversary of the attack on the Capitol, his campaign released a “Plan to Defend Democracy.”

More recently, Shapiro called Mastriano “a dangerous extremist who wants to take away our freedoms” in a statement Tuesday.

“Mastriano wants to dictate how Pennsylvanians live their lives — that’s not freedom,” Shapiro said.

Likewise, Pennsylvania Democrats are looking to use Mastriano’s candidacy as a motivator to drive voter turnout in the general election this fall. The party put out a press release Tuesday highlighting the public criticism of Mastriano by members of his own party.

Mastriano’s campaign did not immediately respond to Billy Penn’s request for comment.

 

A chorus of calamity and ‘a dangerous game’

Shapiro and Mastriano were called as their parties’ winners early on election night, with Shapiro running unopposed and Mastriano securing a robust lead over the crowded GOP field.

Over the days that followed, a steady drip of national headlines have cast Mastriano as a major threat to democracy.

Slate’s Jim Newell topped his roundup of May 17 primaries with the Pennsylvania GOP winner, writing, “Doug Mastriano is the new face of the Republican Party’s extremist wing.”

An Associated Press headline read: “How Pa. GOP Gov Pick Could Turn Election Lies Into Action.”

The Hill reported that Mastriano’s win came “despite party concerns,” noting that “Republicans had scrambled to try to head off a Mastriano nomination and waged a bungling effort to coalesce around an alternative candidate.”

The New York Post noted the candidate’s pledge to require re-registration of voters, “even though that’s barred by the National Voter Registration Act and likely violates significant protections under federal, and possibly state, law.”

National political columnist Dick Polman wrote of Mastriano “if this guy winds up as governor, you can forget seeing an honest election in this swing state in 2024.”

A Vanity Fair article, headlined “Doug Mastriano’s GOP primary victory puts democracy on the ballot in Pennsylvania,” said the GOP nominee would make it all too easy for Trump to influence the fate of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes.

The New York Times’ Reid J. Epstein wrote that Mastriano’s win makes “the general election a referendum on democracy in the place where American representative government was born.”

Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch, who covers national politics, said on Twitter, “the fate of the nation and what happens this fall in Pennsylvania are inextricably linked.” Before the primary, Bunch wrote that Shapiro was playing “a dangerous game” by betting on Mastriano being an easy candidate to beat.

Ahead of Mastriano securing the nomination on May 17, Shapiro’s campaign was already running ads to warn about him. The effort has been seen by many as an attempt to elevate the GOP candidate.

Shapiro defended this campaign strategy on Sunday when CNN’s Dana Bash suggested it might be seen as “irresponsible.” By that point it was clear that Mastriano was the leading GOP candidate and Shapiro would likely be facing in November, he said, and he was just getting a jump on the general race.

“​​I’m not convinced that [Mastriano’s] brand of politics is enough to turn off the majority of the general electorate,” political consultant Mustafa Rashed told Billy Penn on the day of the primary.

Pressure is building

Political observers say the media focus on the threat to democracy is appropriate.

“We came very close to the will of the voters being thrown in the trash,” said Baker, of People for the American Way.

Hopkins, of Penn, said Mastriano’s rise is “deeply alarming” given that he “is calling into question the very democratic process that has allowed him to be nominated.”

Mastriano was present when Trump supporters rallied in DC on Jan. 6, 2021, while legislators were counting electoral votes, which led up to an attack on the U.S. Capitol. He has been subpoenaed by a congressional committee looking into the insurrection.

The national media has done a good job of highlighting the cause for alarm, said Hopkins. But getting that message across is harder now than it has been historically because media audiences are so segmented.

Baker compared the spotlight on Pennsylvania now to the spotlight on Georgia last year during a January runoff election, when Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock flipped two seats in the U.S. Senate to create a narrow Democratic majority.

Even if Shapiro wins, he’ll still be under pressure, Baker noted. Warnock, for example, is already facing another competitive race this fall to keep his seat, and it’s expected to be a tough race.

Said Baker, “It doesn’t end with the election.”

Want some more? Explore other Election 2022 stories.

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