It is just after 2 p.m. in Pittsburgh, and the staff at the Wyndham Grand Hotel are not having a very good time. The lobby of the hotel, smack bang in the heart of the city across the river from the Steelers stadium and Pirates ballpark, is currently full of amped-up Conservative mega-fans, who are lining up in droves to see Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano and the Republican party’s newest standard-bearer, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The event was put on by Turning Point Action, an offshoot of Charlie Kirk’s college conservative outrage hub — which is probably why a young guy is standing on a chair in the lobby trying to hype the crowd. “Come on folks this ain’t a Biden rally,” he says, which gets him a roar. A hotel manager moves in and one of the receptionists appears on the verge of a meltdown, her mask sliding off her nose a bit as she exclaims, “We have to work!!”
The manager comes over and quiets down the “Doug For Gov!” chants and the kid gets off the chair. The line is asked to relocate to the other side of the cavernous lobby, which it does, slowly. (“They did not plan for the people very well,” one attendee complains to a TPA staffer.)
To be fair to the staff, it was always going to be a challenge to deal with this kind of energy. Doug Mastriano, the GOP’s pick to succeed Tom Wolf as Pennsylvania’s governor, is the kind of guy who inspires strong feelings. He is, as many of his fans will remind you, a retired Army Colonel. He has multiple masters degrees from various military universities and a doctorate in history. He also opposes same-sex marriage, thinks climate change is fake science, and once paid the virulently far-right social network Gab for “campaign consulting.”
“He’s really personable,” says Kimberly, 46, a library clerk from Cumberland County, who showed up at noon with her husband and father to see Mastriano for the umpteenth time since he shot to stardom as the firebrand state senator leading the charge against Gov. Wolf’s COVID policies before pivoting to Pennsylvania’s “Stop the Steal” movement. Kimberly’s husband, who doesn’t give his name, claims Mastriano’s office was personally fielding calls from people struggling with mental health issues during the pandemic, which won him a lot of good will. “He’s authentic,” Kimberly says. “Took the words right out of my mouth,” says Melissa, a K-12 teacher next to Kimberly in line. “I like that he doesn’t bash his opponents,” Kimberly says. “He’s all about the issues.”
“The guy’s a loser!” Mastriano exclaims on stage a few minutes later, labeling his opponent, former Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, as a career politician. “He’s another extremely wealthy entitled rich kid,” he says, blasting Shapiro for sending his children to private school. “He believes in school choice for me but not for you!”
The issues Mastriano stands for are clear: He doesn’t want transgender people competing in women’s sports. He doesn’t want any “mandates” from the government. He’s going to deregulate the energy sector. He’s going to push for voter ID laws. And he’s going to come down hard on illegal immigration. If you’ve heard any GOP stump speech in the past six months, you’ve heard it all. What’s interesting, though, is what’s missing from Mastriano’s platform: abortion. Before Mastriano speaks, he brings up his wife, Rebbeca — she gets her own chant of “Reb-be Reb-be!” from the crowd — to speak about “women’s rights.” The word abortion isn’t mentioned; instead, Rebbeca lays out the case that, while Democrats will say conservatives don’t care about women’s rights, they care about plenty of womens’ rights, including their right to bear arms, among others. It’s a stark contrast to many anti-abortion Republican stump speeches during the primary season before the Supreme Court’s shocking decision on Dobbs v. Jackson.
Mastriano isn’t on stage for long. It turns out, he’s mostly there to set up DeSantis, who is on his first stop of the day in a two-event barnstorm of key GOP races. (From Pittsburgh, he’ll head straight to Youngstown, Ohio, for an event with Senate hopeful J.D. Vance.) For close to an hour, the Florida governor plays every one of the hits while tooting on his own full horn section, bragging about Florida’s resurgent economy, which he attributes to his defiant, business-friendly pandemic policies. (Florida’s COVID death rate is the second highest in the nation.) He sprinkles this with dire warnings about everything from the rise of the Chinese Communist party to Joe Biden’s 87,000 new IRS agents — and even includes a long rant against Disney corporation’s opposition to his so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill. (“I’ll tell you this, the state of Florida is where woke goes to die!”)
What’s missing from the speech, however, is any mention of Donald Trump — a surreal twist considering that there are several people sporting TRUMP – DESANTIS 2024 t-shirts in the crowd. Also missing is basically any mention of Mastriano, the candidate DeSantis is ostensibly here to support. Instead, he’s wedged in right at the end, during which DeSantis again praises his own achievements in Florida, and then intimates those changes are what Mastriano would also deliver for the Keystone State.
Trump is, of course, on everyone’s mind. He’s the assumed candidate and de facto party leader in the next presidential cycle. But for now, in these midterms, it’s clear that the foundation of MAGA — pissed off people who want someone to “take their country back” — is still going strong. “What we need are true leaders,” says Karen Proietti, 65, a quality insurance advisor for medical companies. Proietti says she’s an independent, and didn’t mind Shapiro in his role as Attorney General — but she’s lost faith in the Democratic party, alienated by their embrace of trans issues and the “shady” 2020 election. She cares about abortion, but is confident that Mastriano’s radical views will be tempered by the more liberal Pennsylvania legislature. “All Doug wants, what he stands for, is freedom,” Proietti says.
Freedom, of course, means sometimes being confronted with opposing views. As the several hundred attendees stumble back into the sun, they’re greeted by a small but very organized protest put on by Pittsburgh locals and attendees of the NetRoots Nation conference, which was taking place at the nearby David Lawrence Convention Center. The protesters have a huge sign mimicking Trump’s campaign branding that just reads, “Loser.” Others have slogans like, “Mastriano has an ERECTION for INSURRECTION.” (Mastriano was at the Capitol on January 6 but claims he left when the protest became violent.) There are also two LED billboard trucks that slowly circle the Wyndham’s loading zone, flashing big messages that say, “RON DESANTIS GO HOME” and tout Mastriano’s anti-labor positions. The rally goers mostly stand back looking bemused or disgusted, while one woman in a blue floral dress runs up to one of the trucks brandishing a rosary, angrily blessing its occupants. “Keep your rosary off our ovaries!” several protesters chant back.
Blair Mickles, an black Army veteran who’s organized with the Women’s March, lays out the stakes if Mastriano is elected.
“He wants to take away all of the same rights that we both fought for,” she said. “Unless you’re a cis, het, white Christian man, he’s coming for you.”
As the rally goers begin to board charter buses back to various corners of the state, the protest starts to disperse. The billboard trucks do a few more laps. Mastriano himself is long gone, as is DeSantis, bound for Ohio. In a few weeks, an even bigger name will be in town: Donald Trump himself announced he’ll hold a rally in Pennsylvania on September 3. Until then, the MAGA marathon seems to be in competent hands.