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Tuesday 31 January 2023 Dublin: 8°C
TheJournal A truck parked at at Friday's campaign event.
# mayor of easton
On the trail with MAGA-favourite Doug Mastriano as he hits the culture war notes in Pennsylvania
Mastriano is fighting an uphill battle to defeat his Democrat opponent Josh Shapiro.

Rónán Duffy reports from Pennsylvania

EASTON, PENNSYLVANIA WAS the venue for one of the latest stops in Doug Mastriano’s bid to become the Republican governor of the Keystone State. 

Less of a rally and more a community meeting, this stop on Mastriano’s Restore Freedom Tour was held in an American Legion Hall with about 200 people inside.  

24 hours later, Mastriano would be heading eastwards to Manheim to take part in a much larger Q-Anon linked event featuring Donald Trump-pardoned acolyte Roger Stone as well as Eric Trump and others. 

This stop in Easton was altogether less Trumpian in its delivery while at the same time hitting the same notes. Culture wars spoken softly instead of shouted. 

Easton is located in Northampton County and is about 75 miles north of Philadelphia, nestled in between the ecclesiastically named towns of Bethlehem and Nazereth.

The county is somewhat of a bellwether, being carried by Obama twice, Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. It is one of only two dozen counties across the entire country to predict the winners of the last four presidential elections. 

Pennsylvania’s current Democratic Governor Tom Wolf cannot seek a a third term so his successor is a choice between State Senator Mastriano and the state’s Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who polls suggest is the heavy favourite

Pennsylvanians take a specific pride in their state’s array of autumnal colours and the two-hour journey to Easton from Philly takes in some spectacular foliage.

This reporter’s enjoyment of the drive was interrupted only by a succession of highway tailbacks and the driver of a pick-up truck with flashing lights and fluttering US flag who made it clear that I was to get out of the way. 

The feeling that we were heading to the same event was difficult to escape but upon arriving at the veteran’s hall the several trucks adorned similarly made it impossible to tell.

20221021_141348 TheJournal A yard sign at a crossroads in Easton, Pennsylvania. TheJournal

Tickets were required for the campaign stop and although they were free there was a check on the door leading to a queue stretching down the car park. 

It allowed The Journal to speak to a number of people who were waiting to go in and the queuers were happy to talk. 

Asked what brought them out to see Mastriano, responses included fears over crime, the desire to in their words “protect life” and to make up their minds over the election. 

That latter was rare among the people I spoke to and whether they were truly weighing up voting for Shapiro is a different question.

One gentleman who spoke to me said he’s a Republican voter but first prefers to “look a man in the eye to see what he stands for”. 

Another woman said she identified with Mastriano’s ethics of hard-work and almost veered into some Trumpian rhetoric before checking herself. 

“He wants to Make this State….get back to where it used to be,” she said. 

20221021_172001 Supporters outside the event were happy to chat about their priorities.

About ten reporters including this one were present at the event and we were given strict instructions by the four media handlers patrolling the entrance.

A small table at the back of the hall was reserved for journalists and we were each told separately that if we moved away from the designated spot we would be “thrown out immediately”. 

If we wanted to go outside and come back in that was fine but we would have to be walked out and walked back in again. 

The red tableclothed reporters’ desk was in the middle and at the back but on either side there were two other longer tables. One featured campaign merch, both free and for sale, and the other was covered in bottled water and cookies. 

The media handlers offered to bring us water after I had wandered over myself to get a bottle. I chatted briefly to an elderly volunteer manning the water table and she told me about the local area. 

Thirty seconds later in the middle of my chat one of the handlers politely interrupted to say that she wanted to show the lady something. She took out a piece of paper and showed her, whispered something in her ear and whatever she said the lady was not interested in talking to me anymore. 

Undeterred, I told one of the other handlers that I wanted to take some pictures of the merch and went across to the other table.

20221021_155633 A signed print of Mastriano on sale for $100.

My accent was drawing smiles and interest each time I spoke and the lady on the merch table told me she had an Irish last name. She asked me what had brought me all the way to a Mastriano event in Easton and after telling her I was a news reporter I asked her the same question. 

She told me that Mastriano is the first politician she has ever volunteered for, specifically, she said, because “he’s not a politician, he’s a public servant”. 

Mastriano spent over 30 years in the US Army, rising to the rank of Colonel, and served during the 1991 Gulf War. He gained a number of military and history academic qualifications and was elected to the Pennsylvania Senate in 2019. 

The volunteer described Mastriano as “a leader” and said she first became aware of him while working as a nurse during Covid.

She describes going to work during that time and being reassured when she came home to listen to his Facebook videos when he was “telling people the numbers, the real numbers”. 

Facebook Live is where Mastriano built the fervent support base that led to his unexpected win in the Republican primary earlier this year.

As I headed back to the all-important table the room was awaiting the arrival of Mastriano, whose campaign convoy was held up in traffic.

A loud playlist kept the room ticking over with Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now pointing to Mastriano’s intentions and Creedence Clearwater Revival adding to the general upbeat atmosphere. 

The choice of Fortunate Son with its anti-war history and lamentations about the privilege of being a Senator’s son seemed somewhat ironic, however. 

Before Mastriano was finally introduced, a local pastor opened the event with a prayer. During the prayer, he asked for people to “open your hearts and minds” to the message of the arriving politician. 

Following the prayer there was also a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and the singing of the national anthem. 

With Mastriano trailing in the polls and Republicans reportedly focusing their cash on the tighter Senate race, the campaign manager told the crowd that the race: “isn’t about TV commercials, it isn’t about 100 people writing cheques, those 100 people are still only 100 votes”. 

He added that he has “had the honour of working for three people, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump and Doug Mastriano”. 

Curiously, that mention of Trump was one of the relatively few times the former president was spoken about on stage, with Mastriano himself only mentioning the name twice in about 40 mins of speaking. He also mentioned Reagan on two occasions. 

springdale-united-states-13th-oct-2022-republican-candidate-for-governor-of-pennsylvania-doug-mastriano-addresses-his-supporters-and-his-wife-rebbie-looks-on-during-the-meet-and-greet-at-the-spr Alamy Stock Photo State Senator Doug Mastriano. Alamy Stock Photo

Mastriano is cut cleanly from the MAGA cloth and even attended the January 6th riots in the Capitol. While he did not enter the building along with the insurrectionists, Mastriano literally chartered buses to take Trump supporters to Washington DC.

His pitch touched on a variety of notes, making a number of promises for “day one” in the Governor’s office in Harrisburg. 

The pledges included, “a sex-trafficking taskforce”, “unleashing energy by digging and drilling in our state”, “all masking and Covid jab requirements to be over”, “no more boys on the girls’ team or boys in the girls’ bathroom” and “a ban on gender transition for minors in Pennsylvania”. 

All of these promises brought loud cheers from the floor but none more so than when he promised to make the state “the Florida of the north”.

The implication was that he wanted to be the next Ron DeSantis, the Governor of the Sunshine State who has parlayed a big stake on culture war topics into a potential White House run. 

Unlike DeSantis, however, who has also cultivated a spiky persona that has included chiding children during press conferences, Mastriano speaks calmly and approachably. 

In parrallels with Trump’s infamous “American carnage” inauguration speech, Mastriano also speaks about US cities as being in the grips of fentanyl, gun and rape epidemics but does so less in Trump’s bombastic manner and more in the manner of a concerned uncle. 

He’s in no way trying to whip up the crowd but instead tries to reassure them that he knows their concerns and will address them.

His wife Rebecca, or Rebbby as she’s known, is also given time to speak and outlines what she says are women’s rights. The first, she says, “is the right to be born in the first place”.

Among women’s other rights, she says, are the First and Second amendments: Free speech and guns. 

It’s at this point that one of the media handlers gives me the nod so say I can be led closer to the stage to take a picture, an invitation I accept. 

My window to take pictures also takes in a speech by one of the Republican candidates defeated by Mastriano in the primary.

He describes Mastriano as a “freedom fighter” and asks the audience to look to their left and right, “these are the patriots that are in the fights”, he says. 

The fighting narrative is picked up by Mastriano himself who says that what is happening is “a battle for the heart and soul of this nation”.

He ends with a selection of tales from Pennsylvania’s history, including the famous Gettysburg Address and says it’s no coincidence that all of the Founding Fathers spent time in the state. 

He says people need to “rise up” so that Americans can “have a republic that we can pass down to future generations,” adding:

“A government of the people, by the people and for the people, will not perish.”

Follow Rónán Duffy on Twitter as he reports on the midterms in Pennsylvania

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