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Pennsylvania’s Conspiracy Kiss-Up Contest

To win Donald Trump’s endorsement, candidates for the state’s two major 2022 races embrace his big election lie.
June 17, 2021
Pennsylvania’s Conspiracy Kiss-Up Contest
Pennsylvania State Senator Doug Mastriano Speaks at ReOpen Rally in Harrisburg, PA on June 5th, 2021. Mastriano is considering a run for Governor of Pennsylvania in 2022. (Photo by Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump is watching Pennsylvania.

Like every other campaign observer, Trump knows that the Keystone State unlocks presidential victories—and that Joe Biden’s 50.0-48.8 percent victory there put him over the 270 votes needed to win the Electoral College.

Why does that matter now? With Governor Tom Wolf term limited and Senator Pat Toomey not running for re-election, Pennsylvania has two major statewide offices up for grabs in 2022. Both the governorship and the senate seat are powerful perches that could be used to influence the outcome of the 2024 presidential election. Naturally, the Republican candidates vying for these seats are openly seeking Donald Trump’s endorsement—and he wants something in return: an Arizona-style audit in their state.

State Senator Doug Mastriano, who has said Trump personally asked him to run for governor, is setting the pace.

A relative political newcomer who won a special election in 2019, the retired Army colonel quickly made a name for himself in MAGA circles. He has called for the resignation of Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and asked that Pennsylvania results from the 2020 election not be certified until the GOP-led state legislature completed an audit. He also claimed that elections he oversaw in Afghanistan were more “safe” and “fair” than last year’s in Pennsylvania.

A committed “Stop the Steal” leader, Mastriano worked with Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani to hold a widely publicized hearing about alleged voter fraud during the election. His campaign paid for buses to cart protesters to Washington on January 6. He has faced calls for his resignation for participating in the pro-Trump rally that preceded the pro-Trump mob’s attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Mastriano denies breaching Capitol grounds.)

As reward for Mastriano’s efforts, Giuliani made time after the FBI raided his home to hold a May fundraiser for the Pennsylvanian. Mastriano then traveled clear across the country to Arizona to observe what he called in a press release “the most comprehensive election audit in the history of [the] United States.” He is now asking Pennsylvania to conduct a similar audit, per Trump’s wishes.

Never mind that the state already conducted a post-election audit that found “strong evidence of an accurate count.”

The difference here is that Trump and his allies want Republican officials to conduct the audit and use handpicked firms to evaluate the ballots and voting machines. The Grand Canyon State’s election is being audited by the fumbling and inept “Cyber Ninjas”; one could expect the Keystone State’s election to be reviewed by the Keystone Kops.

“So, for the sake of our constitutional republic, and for the sake of people’s peace of mind, let’s just do it,” Mastriano told Wall Street Journal reporter Alexa Corse. “Let’s pick a few counties and put people’s minds at rest.” Trump praised Mastriano for making the trip to Arizona and called upon Pennsylvania’s state senate to act quickly, saying, “If the Pennsylvania Senate leadership doesn’t act, there is no way they will ever get re-elected!”

Another gubernatorial candidate, Lou Barletta, isn’t as gung-ho about the election conspiracies as Mastriano. Still, he’s willing to indulge them.

From 2000 to 2010, Barletta was the mayor of Hazleton, a town about two hours north of Philadelphia. He then spent four terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. He received a Trump endorsement in his failed bid for the U.S. Senate in 2018 and, even though he got crushed by thirteen points, wants it again for his current race for the governorship.

The day he declared his candidacy, Barletta said, “I would love his endorsement, and I’m going to try to earn it.” When asked if the election was stolen from Trump, Barletta gave an answer he probably hoped would please the former president. “No one knows that,” he said. “Who can say for certain how much the election was changed to the difference that would have made? Nobody.”

Barletta seems to think that his “just-asking-questions” routine might be enough to satisfy the former president.

When asked again if he believes Joe Biden was the rightful winner of the 2020 election, Barletta said, “Can anybody really say? We don’t know how much irregularities. I’m not saying he was or wasn’t.” At another stop, he told ABC News 27 reporter Dennis Owens, “Dead people have been voting in Pennsylvania for a long time. We’ve conceded that, but now they don’t even have to go to the polls, Dennis. They can mail in their ballots from the cemetery.”

Lest anyone think Mastriano and Barletta are somehow anomalies in the field, a survey of other candidates running shows such talk is right in the mainstream of the GOP primary season.

Another GOP gubernatorial contender, Montgomery County GOP Commissioner Joe Gale, has described Trump’s presidency as “sabotaged” and his impeachment as “bogus.” He voted against certifying his county’s results in November. And in early January, he published an open letter to Pat Toomey opposing the outgoing senator’s intent to vote to certify Biden as the election winner. Gale’s letter said Toomey was

stunningly disconnected from the reality experienced across America by millions of voters who rightfully contend, with seemingly verifiable proof in many instances, that the outcome of the 2020 presidential election was polluted by cheating, corruption and cover-ups.

Former Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Bill McSwain, currently considering a gubernatorial run of his own, has been tight-lipped about his thoughts on the 2020 election’s legitimacy. However, as one of the state’s top lawyers, anything other than a forthright statement that Trump lost can be understood as an attempt to cozy up to Trump’s supporters. The Philadelphia Inquirer asked him three times if he had observed any major election irregularities in 2020, and reporters Chris Brennan and Jonathan Tamari stated, “We got a version of the same answer each time: ‘I’m not going to address anything like that right now.’”

It’s not just the gubernatorial candidates: Republicans hoping to replace retiring Sen. Toomey are aligning themselves with Trump’s election conspiracies, too.

When Fox News regular Sean Parnell, a former Trump critic, first announced his Senate bid, he said he wasn’t interested in relitigating the 2020 election, but that quickly changed. He joined Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast on May 21 and told Trump’s pardoned ex-campaign strategist that he would “absolutely” support an audit of the 2020 election in Pennsylvania. Said Parnell:

I would have supported a forensic audit—in fact, I would have welcomed it—after President Trump won in 2016. And I would support an audit after Joe Biden. . . . [T]his is about people trusting in the results of an election. And if an audit, a forensic audit after 2016 could have prevented this country from having to go through four years of a Russia hoax spent with taxpayer dollars, I would have welcomed an audit then and I welcome one now.

One of Parnell’s Senate primary opponents, Jeff Bartos, has been doing some behind-the-scenes work to make the MAGA crowd happy. He funded GOP poll watchers while mail-in ballots were counted in 2020 and thinks denigrating mail-in ballots is a way to draw a contrast with Parnell and appease Trump. He’s using Parnell’s previous support for mail-in ballots against him, calling it an act of (here’s that word again) “sabotage.”

Joe Gale’s brother, Sean, is also running for Senate and has described the outgoing Toomey as a “Never Trump RINO” and a “traitor” for his vote to impeach Trump. And, lest anyone think the Senate primary could be any more of a contest to see who is the most MAGA, another candidate, Kathy Barnette, like Mastriano, helped organize buses to take protesters to the January 6 “Stop the Steal” event.

What’s it all mean? Considering Pennsylvania’s role in electing presidential candidates, maybe a lot.

A Republican Pennsylvania governor willing to go along with bogus election audits could play a central role in flipping the swing state in Trump’s favor in the case of a close Democratic win in 2024.

Meanwhile, a Republican winning Pennsylvania’s Senate seat in 2022 could put control of the U.S. Senate back into GOP hands. And come January 6, 2025, a GOP-controlled Senate could do what most House Republicans did earlier this year and object to some states’ election results, thereby blocking the rightful winner from stepping foot in the White House.

It’s all theoretical of course, but the 2020 election could have gone much differently if only a few more Trump enablers were in the right places. And it sure seems like plenty of Pennsylvania Republicans are auditioning for just such a role—not to represent Pennsylvania’s interests but to represent Donald Trump’s. If MAGA Republicans learned anything by losing the 2020 presidential election, it’s that there might be ways to install Trump as president other than by earning the most votes.

Trump sees the opportunity to lay some groundwork in 2022. He just needs the right people—meaning candidates who are willing to play along with his big election lies yet also capable of winning statewide. Not the easiest combination to find.

Such requirements may rule out a MAGA hothead like Mastriano, who seems poised to get destroyed in the suburbs and cities. Barletta, who lost his Senate campaign badly, isn’t the obvious pick either. Really, there’s no telling to whom Trump might give his golden endorsement. But the way things are going, plenty of candidates are saying what it takes to get it.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.