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DeSantis calls on GOP to don 'armor of God' in support of Mastriano

In his first large-scale rally of the general election, Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano appeared before an enthusiastic crowd in a Pittsburgh hotel ballroom — promising to lead them to victory this fall. Mastriano, a state senator, was joined in Pittsburgh by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — a potential rival to former President Donald Trump and an increasingly influential figure in Republican politics.

“This is a people’s movement,” said Mastriano, who at times seemed surprised by the size of the crowd at the Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown. “We’re going to take this state by storm on Nov. 8.”

And at the outset of his 15-minute speech, he sought to deprive Democrats of a line of attack that may prove potent this November: that he is staunchly opposed to abortion rights at a time when the U.S. Supreme Court has made those rights more vulnerable than they have been in half a century. Polling and elections in other states suggest the issue is galvanizing Democrats who had been listless going into the fall.

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Alleging that “Democrats and their acolytes in the media" were seeking “to distract us from their failed record and their destructive agenda for America,” Mastriano said that “One of the places they want to distract us with is women’s rights.”

He handed the microphone to his wife, Rebecca, who accompanied him on stage and sought to recast women’s rights in a conservative-friendly framework that included “the woman’s right to be born,” as well as access to affordable baby formula and food.

“A woman has a right to live in a nation with a secure border. Build that wall,” she said, adding that Republicans “certainly believe that women have a right to the Second Amendment.”

Microphone back in hand, Mastriano pledged to attack his rival, Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro, for Democratic failures under Gov. Tom Wolf and Shapiro’s failure to prevent them. He urged his supporters, “Don’t go on defense. Remind the people what Josh Shapiro and his Daddy Wolf did.”

That record, according to Mastriano, included spiking crime rates and the economic consequences of business shutdowns early in the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the grievances of workers opposed to workplace COVID-19 vaccine requirements and families who opposed mask requirements for school children.

“This extreme agenda by the Democrats — we’re just sick and tired of it, and we say ‘no more,’” he said.

He also pledged to clear-cut regulations such as environmental rules that affect the natural gas industry.

“I’ll rescind every regulation on the energy sector,” he said at one point. “We will drill in Pennsylvania. Oh, yeah.”

One refrain was Mastriano’s objection to the transgender rights movement. Should he be elected, he said, “On Day one — follow the science — no more men on girl’s teams. Come on, it’s not that hard. On Day 1, you can only use the bathroom of your anatomy, not your preference.

“You know, things are bad in Pennsylvania when Doug Mastriano sounds more like a feminist on the floor of the Senate than the Democrats,” he said. “There they are, defending male domination of female sports.

DeSantis’ speech was about three times as long as the one Mastriano gave, and a lot of it was about DeSantis himself. The Florida governor, who is widely believed to be pondering a run for his party’s presidential nomination in 2024, revisited many of the themes he sounded during a previous stop in Pittsburgh in 2021. As he did then, he touted his battles against mask and vaccine requirements and what he called a “Faucian dystopia,” and he boasted about Florida’s job-creation record.

On Friday, DeSantis also boasted of culture war fights, such as a measure to declare “Victims of Communism Day” in early November to ensure “every school kid will get an education in the horrors of communism.” And he recalled his fights with the Disney Corporation about its criticism of a state law that prohibits teachers from talking to young students about sexual orientation or gender identity.

“We must fight the woke” in various institutions, DeSantis said. “We can never ever surrender to woke ideology. And I’ll tell you this: the state of Florida is where woke goes to die.”

He also laid special emphasis on his efforts to rein in efforts to expand ballot access in the state, hailing moves that include eliminating drop boxes and enacting strict voter ID requirements.

“You guys can have all that happen in Pennsylvania if you elect Doug to the governorship,” he said. But doing so would mean ignoring “fake polls” and efforts “to smear Doug.”

“Put on the full armor of God, take a stand against the left’s schemes, stand your ground, stand firm, don’t back down,” DeSantis said in wrapping up. “You guys have an opportunity to make Pennsylvania free.”

The audience was clearly primed to hear that message. Supporters were lined up for more than a block outside the hotel when its doors opened, and for some time after it. Attendees ranged from staunch abortion foes to voters more concerned with bread-and-butter issues.

“School taxes, property taxes, state taxes, highway taxes, gas taxes … the people of Pennsylvania can’t take it anymore,” said Doug Doyle, a traveling salesman from Westmoreland County bearing a “walk as free people” Mastriano campaign sign.

But the event also attracted dozens of protesters, many from the progressive Netroots Nation convention taking place several blocks away. Among those outside the hotel was John Ukenye, a native of Miami.

"We have gay kids trying to express themselves, coming out to the only people they can: Their teachers. And if the teachers say anything ... don't say anything, the teacher can be fired."

For DeSantis, the visit offered a chance to introduce himself to a broader set of the conservative base — a key constituency in a state that will likely be vital in the 2024 presidential campaign. After the Pittsburgh stop, he was set to visit Ohio — another key state — to support that state’s Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, J.D. Vance.

Neither Mastriano nor DeSantis mentioned the frontrunner for the 2024 nomination: Trump. But Trump endorsed Mastriano just prior to the May primary, and he is not likely to allow himself to be forgotten: Even as DeSantis was taking the stage, Trump announced plans to rally for Mastriano and “the entire Pennsylvania Trump Ticket” early next month in Wilkes-Barre.

But DeSantis’ visit to Pittsburgh carried some risk, owing to Mastriano’s previous ties to the social media site Gab. Commenters on the site frequently espouse antisemitic views, and the man accused of the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh posted there. Site founder Andrew Torba himself is an avowed supporter of Christian nationalism, which holds that the United States is a Christian nation and that Christians should lead it.

Mastriano deleted his account on the site and has said that Torba does not speak for him. He did not address the topic at all Friday evening. But days before DeSantis’ visit, Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh and in DeSantis’ home state criticized the joint appearance, noting that Mastriano hasn’t denounced Torba’s view.

“We’ve learned to our dear cost that words matter, and when people say they want to harm us, we now believe them because they’ve done it,” Rabbi Emeritus Jamie Gibson of Pittsburgh’s Temple Sinai told reporters. “So until he unlinks his campaign from the rhetoric of Christian nationalism I am extremely concerned that people will act on that nationalism in ways that harm actual human beings.”

Staff Reporter Oliver Morrison contributed to this story.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.