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Election Denial in the Race for Pennsylvania Governor

The Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election is a key issue in a contest that could impact the administration of the 2024 elections in a battleground state.

Last Updated: May 18, 2022
Published: May 13, 2022
View the entire Tracking Races for Election Administration Positions series

UPDATE: The Republican primary was won by State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who will face Democratic nominee Attorney General Josh Shapiro in the general election.

In Pennsylvania’s primary election Tuesday, voters will choose the nominees for the seat being vacated by Gov. Tom Wolf (D). Election denial — the stance that President Biden didn’t actually win the 2020 election — has loomed large in the contest. The issue has the potential to affect the 2024 elections, since Pennsylvania’s governor appoints the secretary of the commonwealth, who is the state’s chief elections official.

Amid national attention to this battleground state, the leading candidates in both parties have focused on election denial in their pitches to voters. Although there are several election deniers who have posted multi-million-dollar fundraising, the candidate who has opposed the Big Lie, Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D), has raised more than all the election deniers combined. 

In the Republican primary, polls show State Sen. Doug Mastriano with a comfortable lead, followed by former Rep. Lou Barletta, former Delaware County Commissioner Dave White, and former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain. All but McSwain have embraced the Big Lie.

Mastriano held an event in late March with MyPil­low CEO Mike Lindell — a purveyor of various false pro-Trump claims about election fraud — where attendees were asked to sign a peti­tion to decer­tify the result of the 2020 elec­tion in Pennsylvania. The candidate has falsely claimed that there were more votes coun­ted in the elec­tion than there are registered voters in the state and called for an audit.

At the same time, Mastriano has also been attacked with election denial rhetoric. A group called Pennsylvania Patriots for Election Integrity is running TV ads saying Mastriano voted to make voting “less secure” and “failed to audit the 2020 election.” The group has not yet filed reports that would reveal its donors or leadership.

For his part, Barletta has said that mail ballots allowed fraud in 2020. In a debate last month, he mocked mail voting, saying that “dead people have been voting in Pennsylvania all of our lives and now they don’t even have to leave the cemetery to vote.” He has called for a “full forensic audit,” imply­ing that the state’s election administrators have some­th­ing to hide. These campaign stances build on his role as a signatory to the fake Elect­oral College certific­ate that attem­p­ted to assign Pennsylvan­i­a’s elect­ors to Trump.

In campaign ads, Dave White says: “Every fraudulent vote steals a vote from someone like you.” One White campaign ad says McSwain “refused to investigate PA voter fraud” and promises White will “end corrupt mail in voting.”

Although he has not campaigned on it, McSwain has not been able to avoid the Big Lie, as former president Trump issued a statement in April saying: “Do not vote” for McSwain. Trump focused on his false claims of misconduct in 2020, claiming McSwain did “absolutely nothing on the massive Election Fraud that took place in Philadelphia and throughout the commonwealth.”

These four candidates’ standing in the polls is the inverse of their fundraising success. McSwain has raised the most of any Republican, at $8.5 million — almost $6 million of which came from two political committees connected to the Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Commerce. White is not far behind with $7.5 million. Barletta has raised $2 million and Mastriano just $1.6 million.

On the Democrats’ side, the only candidate is Shapiro, who has partially based his campaign on his record fighting the lawsuits to challenge the 2020 vote count in Pennsylvania. Last month, he ran an ad on Facebook warning about “people who tried to overturn the last election” and saying, “I’ve beaten the Big Lie in court.” Another ad features clips of Republican candidates questioning the election, saying they “will do anything” to control the state. A Shapiro campaign attack ad claims Mastriano “led the fight to audit the 2020 election.”

Shapiro has raised $21 million, as much as all the GOP candidates combined, no doubt aided in part by his status as the presumptive nominee from the outset. In addition, Pennsylvania Works LLC, a dark money group with ties to the Democratic Governors Association, has booked $1 million worth of ad buys boosting him.

As the race enters the general election phase, we can expect big outside spending from the parties, as well as super PACs and dark money groups that can accept unlimited amounts. If the candidates’ past statements and standing in the polls is any indication, election denial is likely to continue to be a central issue in this contest with potential repercussions for the administration of the 2024 elections.