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Mastriano, a Trump-backed election denier, leads Pennsylvania GOP field for governor

Pennsylvania Republican candidate for governor Doug Mastriano speaks during a rally at Archery Addictions on May 13, 2022 in Lehighton, Pennsylvania.
LEHIGHTON, PENNSYLVANIA - MAY 13: Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano speaks during a rally at Archery Addictions on May 13, 2022 in Lehighton, Pennsylvania. With less than a week until Pennsylvania's primary election on Tuesday May 17, polls have Republican candidate Doug Mastriano as the front runner in the Governor's primary race. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Tuesday is the final day for Pennsylvania Republican voters to choose their candidate for governor.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has held the job since 2015, is term-limited and will leave office early next year. Voters overwhelmingly chose Wolf over the last Republican contender for the governor's mansion in 2018, but Republicans believe the political winds are in their favor. Democrats control the White House and Congress, and Pennsylvania has reliably chosen governors of the opposite party every eight years since the end of World War II.

That combination of factors has attracted a swath of candidates for the job, who have pulled in a combined $12.8 million in campaign contributions in just the last month. They are in near lock-step when it comes to policy but have made changing Pennsylvania's election law over baseless claims of election fraud a key plank in their platforms.

The Republican Party of Pennsylvania declined to endorse any of the candidates when it met in early February, which set the stage for a primary that has left candidates little incentive to coalesce around one another and a significant chunk of Republican voters undecided. Polling has shown as many as 40% of those voters had not made up their minds on a gubernatorial candidate last month. That number has gradually narrowed to about 15%.

For those who have made up their minds, a clear front-runner has emerged: two-term state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a retired Army colonel who rose to prominence espousing far-right views directly to a homegrown network of supporters online. Mastriano is also known for his support of a lie that widespread fraud led to former President Donald Trump's election loss in 2020.

Videos sourced by online sleuths show the state senator also marched with protestors past an abandoned police barricade near the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Mastriano released a statement shortly after the videos were released affirming his attendance at the rally for Trump and subsequent march to the Capitol that day, but insists he followed the law in doing so.

Mastriano's lead has panicked Pennsylvania's Republican Party establishment, some of whom have thrown their support behind his nearest opponent: former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta. Two candidates, including Pennsylvania's Republican Senate president, dropped out of the primary in the last week. Both hinted they believe Mastriano's more conservative views would not be palatable to voters in competitive areas like southeastern Pennsylvania.

Barletta first made headlines as mayor of his hometown of Hazelton, Pa., where he spearheaded an ordinance that punished businesses and landlords for employing or leasing to immigrants in the country illegally. As a member of Congress from 2011 to 2019, he was among the first to publicly endorse then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 GOP presidential primary.

Over the weekend, Trump endorsed Mastriano over Barletta, praising Mastriano as someone who has "fought hard[er]" to baselessly oppose his election loss more than any of the other candidates.

Whoever wins this crowded primary is likely to face Democratic state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, whose own bid to succeed Wolf has gone unchallenged.

Voting by mail: a campaign fixture

In the race for governor, Republican candidates have spent more time fixating on how Pennsylvania allows voters to cast ballots than almost anything else.

It's become a standard talking point for Republicans to condemn a 2019 state law that vastly expanded voters' ability to cast a ballot by mail. They've propped up their talking points using misinformation or inaccurate statements about the state's mail-in voting system under that law.

Trump has repeatedly and falsely pointed to nonexistent issues with mail-in balloting to boost his lie that the 2020 election was stolen from him in states like Pennsylvania.

Almost every Republican state lawmaker voted in favor of the law in 2019, known as Act 77, including Mastriano. Some of them celebrated the convenience no-excuse mail-in voting would soon offer voters.

But Republicans began to sour on the changes shortly after the 2020 presidential election. A state appellate court ruled the law unconstitutional after a group of lawmakers challenged it, but no-excuse mail-in voting remains in place pending an appeal to Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, GOP candidates for governor have campaigned on repealing the law or severely scaling back its hallmark provision. Some, like Mastriano and Barletta, have inaccurately claimed that state-issued election law guidance and rulings by the state Supreme Court on things like ballot drop boxes led to widespread problems. Most of those merely clarified existing law so counties could properly run an election during the COVID-19 pandemic.

County election departments have complained that the law does not allow mail-in ballots to be processed or counted before the morning of Election Day, which has led to days-long processing delays and stressed-out election workers. They've heavily lobbied state lawmakers to change the law to allow for earlier processing, but those requests have gone unanswered.

Despite vocal opposition to the practice by all of the candidates for governor, over 900,000 voters had requested mail-in ballots by the end of last week, including several hundred thousand by Republican voters.

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