WARMINSTER, Pa. — A top candidate for the Republican nomination for governor in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary — endorsed Saturday by former president Donald Trump — participated in the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, the day the U.S. Capitol was attacked.
And so did one of the Republican contenders to be the state’s lieutenant governor.
The trio are part of a phalanx of Republican candidates nationwide who so strongly embraced Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him that they traveled to Washington to participate in the rally that preceded the violent attack on the Capitol, temporarily disrupting congressional certification of Joe Biden’s victory.
Most of the candidates, including the Pennsylvanians, have said they did not enter the Capitol building that day. But they have made their commitment to Trump’s baseless claims key to their campaigns, and their rise shows the extent to which many in the party’s grass roots have embraced participation in Jan. 6 as a badge of honor.
Should the candidates win their elections, some would be in position to play a critical role in the administration of the presidential vote in 2024. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the governor appoints the secretary of state, who serves as the state’s chief elections officer. Leading GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, a state senator, has said he would appoint a secretary of state who would require all voters to re-register before casting their ballots, a move that could dramatically reshape the electorate — and would likely violate federal law.
On Saturday, Trump extended Mastriano his late support, saying in a statement that no one in the state had “done more, or fought harder” on the election issue and he now felt an “obligation to be with him.”
Other candidates nationwide who have said they attended the rally in Washington on Jan. 6 include Arizona Rep. Mark Finchem (R), who as a candidate for secretary of state is seeking to run his state’s elections. U.S. Senate candidate Ron Hanks, a Republican state representative in Colorado, and J.R. Majewski, who this month won the GOP nomination to challenge an Ohio Democrat in a swing congressional district, have also said they were there.
When a pro-Trump group recently surveyed candidates for local and statewide office in Michigan about their activities on Jan. 6, 13 of them responded that they had been in Washington.
“I was there PROUDLY standing for freedom of speech and election in integrity,” wrote Audra Johnson, a candidate for Congress.
“I believe [Jan. 6] was a set up by the Democrats and [Republicans-in-name-only] to make President Trump and his supporters look bad,” wrote Diane Saber, a candidate for state representative, adding: “Yes I was there.”
In Pennsylvania, Mastriano was a key voice in the effort to overturn Biden’s more than 80,000-vote victory in the state. He has said he attended Trump’s speech at the Ellipse, and videos show him among a crowd moving toward the Capitol as another man removes a bike rack blocking the sidewalk.
Mastriano has said he respected police lines and that he and his wife departed when it became clear the event was no longer peaceful. In February, the House committee investigating Jan. 6 subpoenaed documents and testimony from Mastriano. He has been vague about whether he has cooperated.
U.S. Senate candidate Kathy Barnette, who was also a leading figure in pushing to overturn the Pennsylvania vote, has said she was in attendance when Trump spoke but was not in the crowd that broke into the Capitol. In a video posted online on Dec. 31, 2020, she announced that she was organizing buses to bring supporters to Washington. “Don’t grow weary. FIGHT!” she titled the video.
About 90 minutes after the Capitol was breached, Teddy Daniels, who is running for lieutenant governor with Mastriano and Barnette’s endorsement, posted to Twitter a 12-second video clip of a crowd thronging what appears to be the Capitol’s east plaza. “I’m here. God bless our patriots,” he wrote. He told a local Fox station in Pennsylvania the next day that he got close to the building and heard explosions but that no one in his group went inside.
The presence of Jan. 6 rally participants on the ballot reflects a broader reconsideration among many Republicans of the events that day.
In the immediate aftermath of the riot, some party leaders rejected the violence and urged the GOP to move on from the 2020 election. But many in the party’s grass roots have now embraced a false narrative of the day, believing the riot was the work of antifa activists or a setup by federal law enforcement. A Washington Post-University of Maryland poll in January — a year after the attack — found that only 27 percent of Republicans believed those who attacked the Capitol had been “mostly violent”; 40 percent of Republicans said that violence against the government is sometimes justified.
Former Pennsylvania Republican congressman Charlie Dent, who in 2018 left Congress dismayed by the Trumpian-takeover of his party, called Mastriano and Barnette “a double nightmare.” He said their role in Jan. 6 and their perpetuation of false claims that Trump won the election should disqualify them from running.
“It’s almost unthinkable that this is where we are,” Dent said. “I don’t know exactly what they were doing down at the Capitol, but the fact that they still talk about this stolen election should be disqualifying.”
Pennsylvania Republicans who want the party to move on from 2020 blame GOP state leaders for allowing two devout believers in Trump’s election fraud lies to become front-runners at the top of the ticket.
The state party never coalesced behind a more mainstream candidate, allowing hard-liners to break through a crowded, messy primary, they say. Mastriano positioned himself early on as a staunchly pro-Trump candidate fighting covid restrictions and promising to audit the 2020 election, stances that appeared to help him gain favor in a nine-person gubernatorial primary field.
Now, with days to go before the vote, some of those candidates are dropping out and coalescing around former congressman Lou Barletta in an effort to block Mastriano.
Barnette, who has aligned herself with Mastriano, has recently broken into the top tier in GOP Senate polls as businessman David McCormick and celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz have focused on attacking each other.
Trump endorsed Oz, but at a recent sparsely attended rally in western Pennsylvania, some of the former president’s fans booed the candidate and turned their back to him when he spoke.
Charlie Gerow, a longtime GOP operative in Pennsylvania and one of the candidates for governor, said Jan. 6 is going to be a major issue in the general election if Mastriano and Barnette prevail.
“They’ll have to explain their actions and their whereabouts and have to do it early,” Gerow said.
Robert Gleason, former chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said the pair would struggle in a general election because “a lot of people have moved on, they’ve accepted that [Trump] lost, Joe Biden is president, we’re not going to revote, we’re not going to re-litigate … They need to get over that or it will be detrimental to the party.”
Hours after his endorsement from Trump, Mastriano held a joint rally with Barnette on Saturday in the Philadelphia suburbs of Bucks County. A large group of reporters and photographers were barred from entering by security, including by one man dressed in Revolutionary War garb. Donning a tricorn hat, he stood more than 200 hundred feet outside the venue entrance, refusing to either identify himself or let the journalists pass.
Another man, who only identified himself as “security,” told a Washington Post reporter “I love the press, love America and love freedoms.” Asked if this looked like freedom, he threatened to call the police.
A retired Army colonel elected to the state Senate from a rural district in 2019, Mastriano called for a recount three days after the 2020 election and in late November organized a public hearing in a hotel ballroom in Gettysburg featuring then-Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Mastriano has said he was in close contact with Trump during those weeks.
Mastriano also helped commission an off-books audit of voting machines — funded by Trump allies — in Pennsylvania’s rural Fulton County shortly before Jan. 6. Pennsylvania’s secretary of state later said the review was unauthorized and decertified the county’s machines.
The review foreshadowed efforts by Trump allies to reexamine the vote in other counties and states. Last year, Mastriano visited Trump to assure him he could engineer a statewide review in Pennsylvania.
The candidate has made his challenges to the 2020 election central to the campaign. “So much is at stake. I served in Afghanistan,” he said at a gubernatorial debate last month. “I saw better elections in Afghanistan than in Pennsylvania. For me this is no game.”
Outside Mastriano’s rally Saturday, voter Anmoreen Monaghan, 55, said the 2020 election was “110 percent” a crucial issue for her and that Mastriano was “the only person who had the guts to stand up.”
Attorney General Josh Shapiro, running unopposed for the Democratic nomination for governor, tweeted Saturday that Trump had endorsed “the most extreme and dangerous GOP candidate.”
“It’s time to get off the sidelines … democracy is on the line,” he added.
David Becker, the director for the nonprofit Center for Election Innovation and Research, said Pennsylvania’s 2020 election was more secure than others that had come before, including Trump’s 44,000-vote victory in 2016.
Becker said Pennsylvania’s governor has more power over elections than in other states, making this year’s choice especially consequential for the vote in 2024.
“If it’s someone who believes lies about the election, who wants to continue to undermine the integrity of Pennsylvania elections by claiming falsehoods, it could have a disastrous affect on access for Pennsylvania voters, as well as the overall integrity of the election system,” he said.
Mastriano did not respond to a voice mail or an email sent through his campaign website.
Barnette, too, was an important advocate of overturning the Pennsylvania vote. Coming off a 2020 congressional race in the Philadelphia suburbs that she lost by 19 points, Barnette became convinced that the results were fraudulent.
She went door-to-door in her district trying to prove there were so-called “phantom voters.” Her efforts, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, also included questioning the results of the presidential race, urging state lawmakers to ignore the results and sending pro-Trump electors to vote in the electoral college.
Asked about 2020, Bob Gillies, Barnette’s campaign manager, said, “we’re focused on this campaign and race.” As for her actions on Jan. 6, Gillies said there was no need to comment beyond what is already public, saying Barnette “took a bus, listened to the president’s speech and then left.”
Noel Fritsch, a spokesman for Daniels, said he believed the events at the Capitol were “the furthest thing from an insurrection that this place has ever seen” and that belief that the 2020 election was stolen has become a “litmus test” issue for Republican primary voters.
“I think that’s literally the issue of the election — November 3rd, 2020. You guys want to talk about January 6. The issue is November 3rd,” he said.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.