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Political ads maintain pressure on Mastriano over ties to site used by Tree of Life shooter

Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano speaks during a campaign stop in Erie, Pa., Thursday, September 29, 2022.
David Dermer
FR171035 AP
State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Franklin), the 2022 Republican candidate for governor, can't escape criticism of his ties to Gab, a social-media site tied to the Tree of Life shooter.

With the Nov. 8 election less than a month away — and the four-year anniversary of the Oct. 27 Tree of Life shooting even closer — Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano is once again being hammered for ties to Gab, an antisemitic website frequented by accused synagogue shooter Robert Bowers.

“Before murdering 11 worshippers at this synagogue, the shooter posted his manifesto on Gab,” says a new 30-second ad that is set to air on western Pennsylvania screens. “Doug Mastriano paid thousands to the same site to recruit supporters.”

The ad is sponsored by gun-control advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety Victory Fund, which says it will spend $1 million to place the spot on TV and online in the Pittsburgh market. The spot blasts Mastriano for paying $5,000 to the site, as WESA reported earlier this year, and it calls Mastriano “a far-right conspiracy theorist who compared gun-safety measures to Nazi Germany.”

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That’s a reference to statements Mastriano made during a 2018 Congressional race and that resurfaced this year by The Forward, a Jewish news outlet.

“We saw Lenin do the same thing in Russia,” Mastriano said at the time of gun-control efforts in response to a question about how to stop school shootings. “We saw Hitler do the same thing in Germany in the ’30s. Where does it stop?”

Everytown says the ad is part of a $2.1 million spending plan in the state that also features criticism of Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz.

“The fact that Doug Mastriano is looking for support from the same online forum where the Tree of Life shooter posted his screed tells Pennsylvanians all they need to know about Mastriano’s extreme, dangerous agenda,” said Everytown for Gun Safety president John Feinblatt in a statement.

Mastriano deactivated his account on Gab, whose founder Andrew Torba is an avowed Christian nationalist who says Jews have no place in his vision of the conservative movement. In a Tweet in July, Mastriano said Torba “doesn’t speak for me or my campaign. I reject antisemitism in any form." He blamed “Democrats and the media” for “smears … to distract Pennsylvanians.”

Everytown’s focus is on preventing gun violence, but it has long linked that agenda to a broader concern about right-wing extremism. The gun-control reforms it supports include a measure to prevent people convicted of hate crimes from being able to purchase a firearm.

And the new campaign echoes an earlier spot aired on TV and radio in Pittsburgh and other markets, as well as online, by the Lincoln Project. That campaign, too, flagged Mastriano’s ties to Gab.

“Mastriano knows what he’s paying for, knows exactly what Gab’s audience is,” the Lincoln Project spot asserts. “They’re not just Nazis, Klansman, racists and crazies. They’re his base.”

That ad was voiced by Peter Coyote, who was featured as the narrator in a recent PBS miniseries, “The U.S. and The Holocaust,” by noted documentarian Ken Burns.

It is not entirely clear what Mastriano received for his $5,000 payment to Gab. His campaign reported it as an expenditure for “consulting services,” though one media outlet reported that after the payment, Gab automatically enlisted new members as followers of Mastriano’s own account.

Election Day: Nov. 8, 2022

And even as he professed to have sundered ties with the site, Mastriano accepted a $500 campaign contribution from Torba — a gift that campaign finance records reflect no effort to return.

The slew of stories chronicling those developments, and messages from advocates for the Jewish community and groups like Lincoln, may take a political toll on Mastriano this fall.

While Jewish voters are disproportionately likely to be Democratic, earlier this week, The New York Times reported that Mastriano was “losing ground with a small but significant part of the Trump coalition, squandering opportunities with more conservative and religiously observant Jews.” The paper cited a number of factors, ranging from Mastriano’s Gab ties to his criticisms of a Jewish day school attended by his Democratic rival, Josh Shapiro, and his children.

Mastriano, whose campaign routinely ignores requests for comment from mainstream media outlets, has said little about Gab beyond his tweet this summer. Gab founder Torba has accused reporters of exaggerating Mastriano’s contribution to Gab, noting that $5,000 is a piddling sum in a statewide campaign.

Compared to the money being spent to flag Mastriano’s ties to the group, it has been.

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.