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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.

May 13, 2022
An election worker revises a ballot
Robyn Beck/Getty
View the entire Election Denial in Races for Election Administration Positions series

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.