HARRISBURG, Pa. — Michael Daino smiled as he unloaded folding chairs from a car and lugged them up the Pennsylvania capitol building steps. “One of the sharks!” he said when I told him I was a journalist. “Circling the waters looking for bait.”
The activist from Delaware County was excited. He’d met Doug Mastriano at a 2020 COVID denial rally ― a “reopen” rally, he called it — in the early days of the pandemic, when Mastriano was just a state senator. Now, two years later, Daino was organizing this get-out-the-vote event on Saturday for Mastriano, the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania governor. How far they’d come together. Up to 2,000 people were expected here. Mastriano had posted a video urging folks to come to the “big rally.” He was going to give a speech.
But only 50 or so people turned up to hear Mastriano speak. An embarrassing showing. (“This was in my neighborhood and I didn’t notice,” one nearby resident tweeted. “Tremendously low energy.”) Daino told me the event must’ve been suppressed by tech companies, blaming Facebook for “shadowbanning” the event page ― a common gripe among the MAGA faithful.
It wasn’t immediately clear why the rally was such a bust. Maybe Mastriano didn’t advertise it enough? Or his hostility to the media meant little publicity? Or maybe his supporters were more interested in the Jan. 6 Truth Rally down in D.C.? Or just wanted to watch the Penn State game?
Or maybe Mastriano’s campaign, six weeks before the election, is losing steam.
What is clear is that the event once again demonstrated what an extreme figure Mastriano is; and how he and his supporters are animated by a cruel set of grievances ― against democracy, immigrants, trans people and the media ― that make his candidacy one of the biggest emergencies in American politics.
Among the first to arrive Saturday morning were three middle-aged white men who appeared to be working security. One wore a hat saying “Molon Labe,” an ancient Greek phrase meaning “Come and take them,” a common refrain for Second Amendment fundamentalists. The two others belonged to the South Central Pennsylvania Patriots, wearing patches on their sleeves showing two AR-15s crossed over a map of the state and the Roman number III — a symbol for the Three Percenters militia movement, whose followers have been implicated in the insurrection, armed standoffs with the feds and terror plots.
These two Patriots wouldn’t give me their names.
As more people arrived, a Black man on the road below drove by in a truck and yelled “Get out of the twilight zone!” at the gathering crowd. “Turn the channel!” Harrisburg is a majority-Black city, but the crowd for Mastriano was almost completely white.
As was one man from York County who was there to sell MAGA merchandise, unfurling Blue Lives Matter flags across a folding table. There was also a stack of stickers, each with drawings of a diverse set of guns — pistols, AR-15s, rifles — and the words “CELEBRATE DIVERSITY.”
“That one’s just… a joke,” he explained. He wouldn’t give me his name either. He did tell me he expects Democrats to try to steal this upcoming election from Mastriano, just like they stole the 2020 election from former President Donald Trump. There’s widespread voter fraud everywhere, he said, citing “2,000 Mules,” the widely debunked election denial film. He watches Fox News too.
Jordan Klepper, the comedian and Daily Show host, stopped by the merch table with a camera crew, flipping through the posters on sale. “AMERICA WILL NEVER BE A SOCIALIST COUNTRY,” declared one poster. “DEFUND THE MEDIA,” read another, replete with the logos of major media outlets, including HuffPost.
As Klepper and his camera crew tried to start an interview with someone at the merch table, a man in a white “Project Veritas” hat suddenly arrived, making it clear that this interview was over.
This man was Jeremy Oliver, a former producer for far-right, pro-Trump One America News Network. WHYY reported that the Mastriano campaign has paid over $80,000 to Oliver’s Onslaught Media Group, and that Oliver has since been a regular at Mastriano campaign events, working as a videographer. Oliver has promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory.
All day Saturday, Oliver menacingly followed Klepper’s film crew, sometimes holding up a handheld camera.
Mastriano still hadn’t arrived at the statehouse. The bees were vicious, buzzing around the trashcans on the statehouse steps before sometimes darting after the assembled demonstrators. A woman carrying a large poster of a fetus and the words “IT’S A BABY” swatted a bee from her face.
So did Joe D’Orsie, a Republican nominee for the Pennsylvania state House, shortly before lashing out at progressives who “demean women’s sports by allowing biological males on their teams.”
D’Orsie was among a handful of GOP hopefuls and other elected officials offering up speeches while everyone waited for Mastriano to arrive.
State Rep. Mike Jones lavished praise upon Mastriano, comparing the GOP nominee for Pennsylvania governor to Moses in the Bible — “and where he stood, the dying stopped,” Jones said, quoting the book of Numbers — in a speech dripping with Christian nationalism.
“There is no king here in America but Jesus Christ,” state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz told the crowd. (Last week Borowicz introduced a bill in the state legislature that would ban teachers from mentioning gender identity or sexual orientation, a more extreme version of Florida’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law.)
State Rep. Dave Zimmerman listed out “10 ways you’re being controlled.”
“They used the pandemic, that might’ve been a test drive….” he began, before listing off other apparent avenues of control, including climate change, schools and the FBI.
“Now they even use the FBI to scare us, and guys, I’m one of those. The FBI looked for me all day long but what they don’t know, is I turned my tracker off,” Zimmerman said, a seeming acknowledgement that he was among several Pennsylvania state legislators — whose names weren’t known — who recently received federal subpoenas.
HuffPost can report first that Zimmerman received a federal subpoena. It happened a “couple weeks ago,” he told me at the rally. The subpoena was part of a “witch hunt,” he said, launched by people who want to “shut us up.” He wouldn’t say what is in the subpoena, although it’s widely believed to be related to a federal probe into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, and Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election.
Mastriano — one of the country’s foremost election deniers, who received his own subpoena earlier this year — finally arrived on the statehouse steps Saturday around 1:45 p.m., after his supporters had already been there for two hours. When he won the Republican primary this past May, it raised the alarming prospect that an insurrectionist could be the next governor of Pennsylvania, a key battleground state in the 2024 presidential election.
He arrived with his running mate, Lt. Gov nominee Carrie DelRosso. She spoke first, saying “the Republican Party is the party of family and that’s exactly why we need to win. We need to restore our family systems in Pennsylvania and make sure that we are doing what’s right for our kids.”
“Separate bathrooms!” Del Rosso continued, a reference to banning trans people from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity. “Separate bathrooms! That is a safety measure.”
Del Rosso kept the anti-trans panic going. “Biological males should not be allowed to participate in biological female sports and take away our rights!” she said.
Finally, Mastriano took to the podium. It had been a long week. The media, rightly, had gone after him for campaigning with a self-described “prophet” and prayer coin salesman who calls President Joe Biden the “antichrist.”
Moreover, Mastriano had admitted in a video before the rally that he needed cash because he’s losing support from national GOP groups. “We have not seen much assistance from them and we’re 49 days out,” he said.
And then there are the polls, which show Democrat Josh Shapiro in the lead.
Now here Mastriano was at this pitiful rally. (“It’s clear that Doug Mastriano’s desperate campaign is flailing as Pennsylvanians come together to reject his radical extremism,” Manuel Bonder, a spokesman for the Shapiro campaign, told HuffPost in response to the rally’s poor attendance.)
“So about my campaign,” Mastriano told the crowd, “it’s a vision for Pennsylvania in one word: freedom. On day one ‘woke’ is broke. On day one critical race theory will no longer be taught in Pennsylvania schools. On day one no more boys on the girls’ team. We stand with female athletes. On day one, no more boys in the girls’ bathroom. We stand with the young ladies and their safety. On day one — we’re blessed Pennsylvania, we’re blessed — on day one we’re gonna withdraw from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. We’re going to open up our state lands and rollback regulations, and we’re going to drill and dig like never before.”
Later, Mastriano talked about other freedoms he wanted — like the freedom to use undocumented immigrants as pawns. After mentioning how Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently flew migrants to Martha’s Vineyard as part of a cruel stunt to make immigration an election issue, Mastriano laughed and said when he’s governor he’ll use “my Pennsylvania state police″ to send immigrants to President Joe Biden’s house in Delaware.
Mastriano wrapped things up with a “Thank you and God bless you all” before quickly shuffling off to his car, leaving the statehouse grounds before reporters could ask questions. Not that he would answer them anyway. Mastriano has siloed himself away on the campaign trail to an astonishing degree, refusing to engage with major media outlets, or even local newspapers, preferring instead to answer only softball questions from friendly far-right influencers, like Steve Bannon, and often holding campaign events on private properties where his security team can chase away reporters.
His supporters in Harrisburg Saturday were left to unfurl a giant American flag on the statehouse steps by themselves, as Daino, the event organizer, blared Toby Keith’s jingoistic, post-9/11 country anthem “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” out of the speakers.
Daino played the song again, one more time, as Mastriano’s smattering of supporters stood mostly in silence, once breaking into half-hearted chants of “Doug for Gov!” as they waved the flag up and down, up and down, like somber preschoolers playing the parachute game.
“And you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.,” Keith sang. “Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass / it’s the American way.”