The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion An openly pro-coup Trumpist could become Pennsylvania’s next governor

Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a Republican candidate for governor. (Matt Rourke/AP)
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How should the media cover a candidate who is running for a position of control over our election machinery — and has also displayed an open eagerness to steal elections?

This question arises now that Doug Mastriano is surging in the GOP primary for Pennsylvania governor. As a state senator, Mastriano played a lead role in Donald Trump’s effort to overturn his 2020 presidential loss, and the state’s next governor could be pivotal to a 2024 coup rerun.

This basic situation is reflected in some media coverage of Mastriano’s surge. But there’s something more nefarious about Mastriano than those basic facts convey when it comes to the true threat to democracy he poses.

Mastriano didn’t just try to help Trump overturn the election. At the time, he also essentially declared his support for the notion that the popular vote can be treated as non-binding when it comes to the certification of presidential electors.

Mastriano is now running for a position that exerts real control over the process of certifying electors. Republicans fear he could secure the nomination, because he might be a weak general-election candidate. But forecasters note that in a bad enough year, he could win.

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This is deeply worrisome: It means Mastriano could soon have the power to help execute a version of the scheme he endorsed — certifying electors in direct defiance of the state’s popular-vote outcome, based on bogus claims that this outcome was compromised.

Much of the coverage of Mastriano’s surge — see here, here and here — doesn’t quite capture this underlying reality. Yes, those pieces tell us Mastriano played a key role in Trump’s 2020 theft effort. Some accounts note that as governor, Mastriano would appoint the next secretary of state, who would exert great control over the election process.

All of that is important. But it’s also insufficient. What must be conveyed clearly and unflinchingly is this: If Mastriano wins the general election, there is almost certainly no chance that a Democratic presidential candidate’s victory in Pennsylvania in 2024 will be certified by the state’s governor.

Consider Mastriano’s own words. During Trump’s 2020 effort to steal the election, Mastriano explicitly endorsed the idea that the state legislature has “sole authority” to reappoint new electors, given “mounting evidence” that Joe Biden’s win was “compromised.”

It wasn’t actually “compromised,” of course. But Mastriano continued to insist it was. He even pushed the Justice Department to accept this, at the moment when Trump wanted the department to announce fraud to create a pretext to overturn his loss. Mastriano is running for governor on the very idea that Trump’s loss was compromised.

This functionally means that Mastriano adheres to the notion that the mere claim of fraud is enough to justify the certification of presidential electors in defiance of the popular-vote outcome. As governor, he would be in a good position to help operationalize this very principle.

In Pennsylvania, the secretary of state certifies the election results, and the governor signs the certification of the winner’s electors. The state legislature exercised its constitutional role in determining the “manner” of appointing electors by passing a law creating this process.

If the Democratic contender wins the popular vote in Pennsylvania in 2024, and Gov. Mastriano declares widespread fraud, what’s to stop his handpicked secretary of state from certifying the GOP candidate as winner, after which he could sign certification of that candidate’s electors?

What’s to stop a House of Representatives controlled by Speaker Kevin McCarthy from counting those sham GOP electors?

“That is what is at stake,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is running for governor as a Democrat, told me. “He has made it clear he believes the 2020 election was rigged, and he would have put his own electors in place if he were governor.”

“This is not just about the ‘big lie,’” Shapiro said, noting that this formulation undersells the degree to which Mastriano poses a “danger to democracy.”

Some might dismiss that as a partisan argument. But that’s exactly the problem: A clear rendering of the situation, based on Mastriano’s own declared positions, seems so outlandish that it’s easy to dismiss as mere partisan posturing.

Of course, Mastriano might lose the general election. Or he might lose the primary. But for now, it should be asked: Is the media clearly conveying to voters the choice they face?

This is a question The Post’s Margaret Sullivan regularly poses to her media colleagues. Sullivan doesn’t appear reassured.

Similarly, CNN editor Alex Koppelman attracted attention this week by suggesting that the media may be falling short of this mission in a general sense. He pointedly asked colleagues if they’re conveying what they “know” about the possibility of a stolen 2024 election.

Press critic Jay Rosen argues that along these lines, newsrooms should engage in “disaster planning” and “threat modeling.”

“We need journalists to project forward in their imaginations to how these disasters for democracy would actually unfold,” Rosen told me.

In this context, Rosen continued, journalists should ask themselves whether their renderings of the present capture those possibilities. He asked: “Are voters being given a clear picture of the choice ahead?”

Unfortunately, we can’t answer that question in the affirmative with a whole lot of confidence.