Note: This post was updated at 11:23 a.m. Sunday with a note regarding concerns from some Mastriano critics that the church may have breached rules regarding its nonprofit tax status by hosting Saturday’s event.
LOWER ALLEN TOWNSHIP – Sen. Doug Mastriano largely put aside his standard stump speech on Saturday night to pay tribute to the last grassroots conservative movement in Pennsylvania which – for now – he is a field general as he battles with Democratic Attorney General Josh Shapiro to become the state‘s next governor.
Gone, for tonight anyway, are the Republican nominee’s regular mentions of cutting business regulations, plunging Pennsylvania headfirst into school choice, putting energy development above climate concerns, excluding men in women’s sports and canceling the right to abortion.
“The call to action tonight was not, vote for Doug Mastriano,” said Judah Hoover, a realtor from Landisville, Lancaster County. “The call to action was don’t be discouraged if the venue is cancelled. Don’t be discouraged if they say bad things about you. Go anyway. Always organize. Always attend. Always participate in the defense of your beliefs.
The occasion was the premiere of a film from Stephen Turley’s production studio, a conservative author and commentator whose website heralds the rise of a “new conservative era” marked by people – in many countries – reaffirming religion, cultures and nation against what Turley calls “the dehumanizing tendencies of secularism and globalism”.
Turley, a Delaware resident, called “The Return of the American Patriot: The Rise of Pennsylvania” a celebration of grassroots conservatism in Pennsylvania “where advocates for faith, family, and liberty completely change the political order in the Keystone State”.
In fact, the results of this movement have so far been uneven: A relentless backlash against Governor Tom Wolf’s coronavirus shutdown orders ultimately resulted in a large reduction in the governor’s emergency powers; but also, a seemingly blind allegiance to former President Donald J. Trump’s claims about voter fraud that may have delayed progress on legitimate electoral reform proposals.
For now, the movement has certainly overtaken the Republican Party – this has been seen in Decisive win for Mastriano in a nine-person Republican field this spring. The question now is whether he can capture enough of Pennsylvania politics to secure the governorship, now held by Democrats for 16 of the past 20 years.
A victory for Mastriano, provided the state legislature remains under Republican majority control, would be a political game-changer for Pennsylvania.
The challenges were evident Saturday at Christ Community Church here – this night serving as a place of worship for conservative themes like more parental control over schools; the need for greater electoral integrity and the perception that the mainstream media is a sworn enemy.
- Audiences in Turley cheered loudly for the story of Roslyn Williams, a former campaign organizer for Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams who said she was fired from her job after returning to her hometown of Philadelphia for refusing to to obey a coronavirus vaccine mandate and apparently disavowed Democrats because of it.
- They also audibly booed footage of Republican legislative leaders like Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, and Senate Pro Tempore Speaker Jake Corman, R-Center County, who the filmmakers criticized as lacking in stomach to fight for Trump. It’s a group that Mastriano has deliberately been trying to unite behind him since the turbulent primary battle.
Turley’s film only presented Mastriano as part of a larger ensemble filled with the kind of people who made his rise possible – Williams, the leaders of the Reopen Pa movement, or Danielle Lindemuth, an Elizabethtown school principal who said she ran for office after being denied information about her child’s school environment.
Other profiles are Toni Shuppe, the leader of a group called Audit the Vote that began with a quest for a full forensic audit of Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results; and Tabitha Valleau, co-founder of Free PA, who led early grassroots opposition to many of Wolf’s coronavirus restrictions and is now recruiting “constitutionally conservative” candidates for state and local positions.
Mastriano’s soft sell-off on Saturday night was no doubt due in part to federal Internal Revenue Service regulations that prohibit organizations that have common non-profit tax status from “participating or intervening directly or indirectly in any political campaign”. on behalf of (or against) any candidate for elective public office”.
That’s why, for example, Mastriano was introduced as the man everyone was waiting to hear from instead of “your next governor”, and the race against Shapiro was never directly mentioned. And when he briefly mentioned Shapiro in his speech, it was followed in brackets by a disclaimer like, “I don’t do politics here; it is only an observation.
To the surprise of some participants who attended a private meeting, there was no direct call for contributions.
The IRS guidelines state that certain voter education activities, such as public forums intended to encourage people to participate in the electoral process, would not be prohibited if conducted in a nonpartisan manner. According to Charity Navigator, Christ Community Church has had 501(c)(3) status since 1988.
But some critics disputed whether Christ Community Church met those standards on Saturday night.
The pitfalls of the 2022 Governor’s Race could not be missed.
Just off the church grounds, a peaceful group of 10 protesters greeted attendees with signs reading “Doug Mastriano for Jail,” in a possible reference to the candidate’s presence during the January 6, 2021 march on the US Capitol which has turned into a violent attempt to disrupt Congress’ certification of Democrat Joe Biden’s election.
Mastriano acknowledged participating in the march to the Capitol after Trump’s speech that day, but he said he never entered the building and never participated in any criminal acts.
Anti-Mastriano protesters were countered by a mobile Mastriano billboard driven to the site by LaVerne Brown, a Dauphin County Republican committee member from Elizabethville, featuring two cut-out figures that once adorned his Country Cousins restaurant in Tower City.
“Restore the PA for our grandchildren,” the sign read.
The children, Rexford and Ellie, shared the stage with a stork holding a package labeled “the unborn child” – a nod to Mastriano’s anti-abortion stance.
“It’s just the direction of the country,” Brown said, explaining his support for Mastriano, as he ticked off issues like inflation and energy prices. “We have to save the country.
And inside were an audience-led chant or two of “Vote for Doug!” heard throughout the evening.
Inasmuch as he ran a real campaign on Saturday night, Mastriano mostly emphasized his promise to be the best protector of individual rights and freedoms Pennsylvania has ever seen, which he says he has proven through his battles against the 2020 pandemic rules. It’s his way of building the proverbial big tent.
“We might not agree on all issues and don’t need to agree on all issues,” Mastriano told the crowd. “But we share a common cause in the fundamental belief that each of us is valuable, each of us has certain God-given rights and they should never be trampled on.
“It’s not something for people to fear what we see here,” he added later. “It’s a grassroots movement. We are a constitutional republic, and you have the last word.
Democrats, on the other hand, he argued, are led by a series of leaders who “need you to pay your taxes and shut up, and just comply.”
Sharing the limelight with Turley’s cross-platform medium, Turley Talks, had its pros and cons, from a purely political standpoint.
Mastriano has a great crowd – the film’s producers said they sold 1,200 seats – both on the main stage and in a more intimate pre-screening encounter for VIP seat holders. The wrong side? Due to a long take for Turley Talks right after the film, probably a third of the audience left before the contestant took the stage.
Mastriano has clearly tried to keep his tone appropriate not just for a church, but for a crowd of mostly diehard supporters who don’t need persuasion – they know where he stands on the main issues of the day – but encouragement and appreciation could renew their spirit.
And, he warned his team, the rules of engagement won’t always be fair.
“It’s really disheartening that the left, they get away with so much,” Mastriano said at one point in his speech. “They get so much black money from all these sources. Like Josh Shapiro… Thirteen million dollars (in his campaign accounts). Nobody scans his list but they scan my list, and they go after those companies that give to republicans to make them deflate and stop giving….
“It’s so important that we have courage,” Mastriano said.
Some contacted after Saturday’s event said they thought they were starting to find it.
“People are getting braver. And they are tired of things being the way they are. They’re tired of being muzzled,” Lower Paxton Township resident Lynnette Parr told PennLive after Saturday’s screening. “Especially women, and that excites me. As conservative women, we need to use our voices.