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Does the Future of American Democracy Depend on Josh Shapiro? National commentators, columnists and reporters are placing the blame on the Pennsylvania Attorney General, who just locked up the Democratic nomination for governor.
“It’s up to Josh Shapiro to save America,” MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell said last week.
The Republican nominee for governor is Doug Mastriano, a South Central Pa state legislator. who rose to prominence as one of the leading voices who alleged mass electoral fraud in 2020.
Mastriano has said he wants to eliminate postal voting with no excuses and ballot boxes, as well as clearing the state’s electoral rolls so that all residents have to re-register. As governor, he would be responsible for appointing Pa.’s secretary of state, who oversees the elections.
The chorus of journalists and analysts summarizing the race’s stakes have noted that Trump tried to influence Georgia’s secretary of state to change the vote count in 2020, and they worry that a similar attempt in 2024 would be successful as Mastriano becomes governor.
“This is not politics as usual,” Dan Hopkins, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, told Billy Penn.
The ominous framing and intense focus put a lot of pressure on Shapiro, says Marge Baker of People for the American Way, a progressive advocacy organization. “Our democracy is really at stake,” Baker said.
It’s not that Shapiro is surprised by the bet. In January, on the one-year anniversary of the Capitol attack, his campaign released a “Plan to Defend Democracy.”
More recently, Shapiro called Mastriano “a dangerous extremist who wants to take our freedoms” in a statement Tuesday.
“Mastiano wants to dictate how the people of Pennsylvania live their lives — that’s not freedom,” Shapiro said.
Likewise, Pennsylvania Democrats want to use Mastriano’s candidacy as a motivator to boost turnout in this fall’s general election. The party released a press release on Tuesday highlighting public criticism of Mastriano by members of its own party.
Mastriano’s campaign did not immediately respond to Billy Penn’s request for comment.
Shapiro and Mastriano were declared winners of their parties early on election night, with Shapiro unopposed and Mastriano a solid lead on the crowded GOP field.
In the days that followed, a steady stream of national headlines has labeled Mastriano a major threat to democracy.
Slate’s Jim Newell ended his roster of May 17 primaries with the Pennsylvania GOP winner, writing, “Doug Mastriano is the new face of the extremist wing of the Republican Party.”
An Associated Press headline read, “How Pa. GOP Gov Pick Could Turn Election Lies Into Action.”
The Hill reported that Mastriano’s victory came “despite partisan interests”, noting that “Republicans had made an effort to avoid a Mastriano nomination and made a bungled effort to rally around an alternative candidate.”
The New York Post noted the candidate’s pledge to require voter re-registration, “even though that is prohibited by the National Voter Registration Act and likely violates significant protections under federal and possibly state laws.”
National political columnist Dick Polman wrote of Mastriano: “If this man ends up as governor, you can forget that you saw fair elections in 2024 in this swingstate.”
In a Vanity Fair article headlined “Doug Mastriano’s Primary GOP Win Puts Democracy on the Vote in Pennsylvania,” the GOP candidate said it would make it all too easy for Trump to influence the fate of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes.
Reid J. Epstein of the New York Times wrote that Mastriano’s victory “turns the general election into a referendum on democracy in the place where the American representative government was born.”
Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch, who covers national politics, said on Twitter“The fate of the nation and what’s happening in Pennsylvania this fall are inextricably linked.” Before the primaries, Bunch wrote that Shapiro was playing “a dangerous game” by betting that Mastriano was an easy candidate to beat.
Before Mastriano secured the nomination on May 17, Shapiro’s campaign was already running warnings 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 could be considered “irresponsible.” At that point, it was clear that Mastriano was the leading GOP candidate and Shapiro was likely to face in November, he said, and he just made a jump in the overall race.
“I am not convinced that [Mastriano’s] brand of politics is enough to knock out the majority of the general electorate,” political adviser Mustafa Rashed told Billy Penn on the day of the primary.
Political observers say the media’s focus on the threat to democracy is justified.
“We came very close to the will of voters to be thrown in the trash,” said Baker of People for the American Way.
Hopkins, of Penn, said Mastriano’s turnout is “very alarming” as he “questions the very democratic process by which he was nominated.”
Mastriano was present when Trump supporters gathered in DC on Jan. 6, 2021, as lawmakers counted the electoral votes, leading to an attack on the United States Capitol. He has been subpoenaed by a congressional committee investigating the uprising.
The national media has done a good job highlighting the reason for alarm, Hopkins said. But getting that message across is more difficult now than in the past because the media audience is so segmented.
Baker now compared the spotlight on Pennsylvania to the spotlight on Georgia last year during a runoff election in January, when Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock flipped two seats in the US Senate to create a slim Democratic majority.
Even if Shapiro wins, he will still be under pressure, Baker noted. Warnock, for example, already faces another competitive race this fall to keep his seat, and it’s expected to be a tough race.
Baker said, “It doesn’t end with the election.”