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HomeInternationalJosh Shapiro sprints across Pennsylvania with Democrats’ hopes along for the ride

Josh Shapiro sprints across Pennsylvania with Democrats’ hopes along for the ride

At stops along the route, supporters described Shapiro as a dynamic speaker and hard-nosed campaigner who is delivering the right message at the right time: talking up boosting police and education spending and prioritizing protecting individual freedoms and democracy, all while highlighting his own record to enhance his credibility.

Some supporters even said they could one day see Shapiro running for president, a suggestion he batted away among reporters. 

Kathy O’Neil, 68, told NBC News at a campaign stop in Erie that she felt Shapiro has “done so much for us.” His support from law enforcement, including the Pennsylvania State Troopers Association and Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police — two groups that have endorsed Oz in the Senate race — stood out to her, too.

“He’s a champion of the people in Pennsylvania,” she said. “I can’t say anything negative about him. But you can’t, unfortunately, say that about the Democrats [at large]. I mean, I’m a Democrat. But he’s run a great campaign. Look at all he’s done. He didn’t come out of nowhere.”

At each stop, Shapiro talked up his plans should he win, which include expanding public education funding and adding mental health counselors and more vocational tech opportunities in schools, hiring 2,000 police officers and boosting green energy jobs. He highlighted his achievements in office, which include negotiating an agreement between western Pennsylvania’s largest health care and health insurance providers, staving off disruptions for people across the region, and advancing an investigation that found 1,000 Pennsylvania children had been abused by the Roman Catholic Church. (Mastriano, 58, has said Shapiro has a “grudge” against the church, while some Catholic organizations believe Shapiro went too far).

“There is no fight too big, no mountain too high to climb,” Shapiro said in Beaver. “We will take on any and all comers, including Doug Mastriano. And this guy is super dangerous, really extreme and must be defeated.”

Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., told NBC News ahead of Shapiro’s speech in Beaver that the campaign against Mastriano is “a different race than many,” making it hard to draw out too many lessons for Democrats in other races — “except to say that Josh spent a very long time actually doing a great job as a public servant.”

Pennsylvania Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro meets supporters
Shapiro greets supporters in Beaver, Pa., on Tuesday. Jeff Swensen for NBC

“When we look at who we are nominating for these big races, what personal record do they have separate and apart from whatever kind of social media cache they may have?” said Lamb, who lost to Fetterman in the Senate primary. “It could be an important lesson.”

To take on Shapiro, Mastriano has struggled greatly to raise money and draw financial support from outside Republican groups to boost his campaign. Retiring Sen. Pat Toomey, also a Republican, has not endorsed his candidacy, while Oz has kept Mastriano at arm’s length. Shapiro has been able to gain support from some wary Republicans who feel Mastriano is too extreme and believe Shapiro to be more of a moderate Democrat.

“He’s one of those unique candidates where people tend to project their own values and ideology onto him,” said Mike Mikus, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic strategist. “If you’re a moderate Democrat, you think he’s a moderate. If you’re a progressive, you think he’s a progressive.”

But Shapiro, as Mikus said, has also benefited from investing time in places across the state, including smaller and more Republican-leaning counties, during his tenure as attorney general. During a campaign stop in Clarion, Shapiro pledged to advocate for “forgotten” parts of the state.

“That’s why he’s just uniquely strong,” Mikus said. “I mean, he may be the strongest candidate I’ve seen for governor perhaps in my lifetime.”

Speaking on his campaign bus, Shapiro described himself as a pragmatist.

Pennsylvania Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro
Shapiro on his bus en route to another campaign stop in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. Jeff Swensen for NBC

“We have to find ways to get to working together again,” he said. “If you want to label that as moderate or whatever word you used, I mean, you can choose whatever label you want for me. I just think it’s about pragmatism.”

His opponent has charted a different path, rising through the pandemic and aftermath of the 2020 election to lead Pennsylvania’s far-right and emerge from a deep Republican primary field that failed to coalesce around any single alternative.

Through his campaign, Mastriano has suggested he could “decertify every machine in the state with the stroke of a pen via the secretary of state,” whom the governor appoints, in addition to saying he could make every Pennsylvania voter have to re-register. He has also compared abortion to murder and has advocated for strict restrictions on the procedure. He says his views are irrelevant on abortion because he can only sign whatever the Legislature passes, but a Mastriano win would in all likelihood provide Republicans with unified control over Harrisburg, allowing them to pass new restrictions.

In recent weeks, allegations of antisemitism have taken on more prominence in the race. This summer, Mastriano came under scrutiny for a campaign payment to the far-right social media site Gab. The site’s founder has called for an exclusively Christian conservative movement, while the alleged assailant who killed 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 posted antisemitic rants to Gab prior to the shooting. After the Gab payment was uncovered, Mastriano posted a statement saying, “I reject anti-Semitism in any form.”

But Mastriano later drew scrutiny for saying the Jewish day school that Shapiro, an observant Jew, had attended was “privileged, exclusive, elite.” A top campaign adviser called Shapiro “at best a secular Jew,” while Mastriano’s wife, Rebbie, responded to the allegations of antisemitism last month by saying, “As a family we so much love Israel, in fact, I’m going to say we probably love Israel more than a lot of Jews do.”

Amid his own tour across the state during the final week, Mastriano challenged Shapiro at a rally in suburban Pittsburgh to “stare me in the eyes and call me an antisemite.”

“How do you respond to somebody who says you’re antisemitic?” Mastriano later added. “You’re on the defense right away. There’s no way you can win.”

Mastriano’s campaign against Shapiro is threefold — tying him closely to Covid shutdown orders that Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration enacted early in the pandemic; blaming Shapiro for rising crime in the state — saying Wednesday that the state attorney general “has blood on his hands” and “doesn’t care about anything but his own political ambition” — and putting Shapiro on the side of culture war issues that infuriate conservatives.

“Josh Shapiro stands for all that is wrong with the Democrat Party,” Mastriano said. “He is the face of elitism. He is the face of entitlement. He is the face of political correctness.”

Where the two campaigns really contrast, though, is on how they talk about freedom. At each of Shapiro’s stops, he sought to compare his vision for freedom with Mastriano’s, whose campaign slogan is “Walk as Free People” (which Mastriano has said is based on biblical text).

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