MERION STATION, Pa. — Four years after the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, believed to be the deadliest antisemitic attack in American history, Doug Mastriano, the Republican nominee for governor of Pennsylvania, has rattled a diverse swath of the state’s Jewish community, alarming liberal Jews with his remarks and far-right associations, and giving pause to more conservative ones.
Some of those voters have recoiled from Mr. Mastriano’s opposition to abortion rights under any circumstance, or from his strident election denialism. But the race between Mr. Mastriano, a state senator, and his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Josh Shapiro — a Jewish day school alum who features challah in his advertising and routinely borrows from Pirkei Avot, a collection of Jewish ethics — has also centered to an extraordinary degree on Mr. Shapiro’s religion.
Mr. Mastriano, who promotes Christian power and disdains the separation of church and state, has repeatedly lashed Mr. Shapiro for attending and sending his children to what Mr. Mastriano calls a “privileged, exclusive, elite” school, suggesting to one audience that it evinced Mr. Shapiro’s “disdain for people like us.”
It is a Jewish day school, where students are given both secular and religious instruction. But Mr. Mastriano’s language in portraying it as an elitist reserve seemed to be a dog whistle.
“Apparently now it’s some kind of racist thing if I talk about the school,” Mr. Mastriano said at a recent event as he cast himself as a champion of school choice for all. “It’s a very expensive, elite school.”
The focus on Mr. Shapiro’s religion has freighted one of the nation’s most consequential elections with an unusually raw and personal dimension.
“You have a candidate who is Jewish, an observant Jewish candidate, who puts his observance and his faith in his campaign ads,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League. “And then you have someone who associates with unapologetic, unabashed antisemites running against him.”
In a closely divided state where races are often won on the margins, Mr. Mastriano is now losing ground with a small but significant part of the Trump coalition, squandering opportunities with more conservative and religiously observant Jews who embraced the former president and his party because of his often-hawkish stance concerning Israel, but who now express grave reservations about Mr. Mastriano.
This summer, Mr. Mastriano’s campaign came under scrutiny for paying $5,000 to the far-right social media platform Gab. The man accused of perpetrating the Pittsburgh shooting had posted antisemitic screeds on Gab, and Mr. Mastriano’s payment drew bipartisan condemnation. The platform’s founder, Andrew Torba, defended Mr. Mastriano and declared that “we’re not bending the knee to the 2 percent anymore,” an apparent reference to American Jewry.
Only after significant pressure did Mr. Mastriano release a statement saying that he rejected “antisemitism in any form,” appearing to leave the site and stressing that Mr. Torba did not speak for him.
But a late September campaign finance report showed that Mr. Mastriano had accepted a $500 donation from Mr. Torba in July. His campaign did not respond when asked whether he planned to return the money, and he and his aides ignored a reporter’s shouted questions about the donation during an event last Friday.
And Mr. Mastriano has baselessly accused Mr. Shapiro of holding a “real grudge” against the Roman Catholic Church. That may have been part of a misleading reference to debates over enforcement of contraception coverage. But Mr. Shapiro’s office also led a bombshell investigation into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse of children. Mr. Mastriano’s campaign did not respond when asked what he was referring to.
In the final weeks of the midterm elections, candidates across the country are clashing bitterly over the threat posed by extremism. But no major contest this year has been shaped more prominently, persistently or explicitly by concerns over antisemitism than the Pennsylvania governor’s race.
Taken together, Mr. Mastriano has left even conservative swaths of Pennsylvania’s otherwise liberal-leaning Jewish community feeling deeply uncomfortable.
“The Orthodox community would generally swing more toward Republican,” said Charlie Saul, an Orthodox Jewish lawyer from the Pittsburgh area. A registered Democrat, Mr. Saul said he voted twice for former President Donald J. Trump and plans to back Mehmet Oz, the Republican Senate nominee, as well as Mr. Shapiro. “But in this situation,” he added, “because of the association of Mastriano with antisemites, I think that they’ll swing Democrat.”
Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, suggested that because of Mr. Shapiro’s “relationship with the Jewish community and the fact that Mastriano’s not doing any outreach to the Jewish community, and has these issues hanging over his head,” Mr. Shapiro stood to overperform with center-right Jewish voters. The coalition is supporting Dr. Oz but has criticized Mr. Mastriano over his Gab associations.
His campaign did not respond to three requests for comment or provide the names of any Jewish surrogates. Representatives for the Republican National Committee did not respond to questions, and several other Republican leaders declined interviews.
Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who has campaigned for Mr. Mastriano, defended the candidate, calling him a “strong Christian Zionist” and saying he did not see any “antisemitic concerns at all.”
“I just don’t think, necessarily, being a strong Christian necessarily makes you someone who’s intolerant of other faiths,” he said. But he acknowledged he did not know Mr. Mastriano well.
As explosive as antisemitism can be, and even as antisemitic incidents are on the rise, it is seldom openly displayed by candidates for high office. But responding to someone who uses tropes or dog whistles but stops short of baldfaced hate speech can be challenging, and there is the risk of getting derailed by focusing too much on one’s identity and not enough on what concerns the broader public.
The key is to discuss such “corrosive” matters in a way that resonates with a broad audience, said the veteran Democratic strategist David Axelrod. He noted that former President Barack Obama positioned himself as both proudly of the Black community, and a president for all.
“Josh Shapiro isn’t running to be the Jewish governor of Pennsylvania, he’s running to be the governor of Pennsylvania,” Mr. Axelrod said. “Your job, as prospective leader of a state, is to speak to it in a larger context.”
To that end, Mr. Shapiro portrays Mr. Mastriano’s antisemitic associations as evidence that he is dangerously extremist, with a governing vision that excludes many Pennsylvanians, an argument he has amplified in ads. (During the primary, Mr. Shapiro also ran an ad that appeared to elevate Mr. Mastriano, a move he has defended.)
“There is no question that he is courting antisemites and white supremacists and racists actively in his campaign,” Mr. Shapiro said in an interview, though he stopped short of calling his opponent an antisemite.
He said that Mr. Mastriano “draws on his view of religion” to press policies that would have significant consequences for others, citing Mr. Mastriano’s blanket opposition to abortion rights, for instance.
“Unless you think like him, unless you vote like him, unless you worship like him or marry like him, then you don’t count in his Pennsylvania,” Mr. Shapiro said last week. “I want to be a governor for all 13 million Pennsylvanians.”
At the same time, Mr. Shapiro’s Jewish identity is a defining aspect of his public persona.
His first television ad this year featured him at Sabbath dinner with his family, challah on the table and a hamsa — a hand-shaped symbol often seen in the Middle East, including in Israel — on the wall.
“It was important to let people know who I am and what I’m all about,” said Mr. Shapiro, saying that his faith “has played a central role to me and has motivated me to do service.” “That’s an important part of who we are.”
As he discusses civic engagement on the campaign trail, he frequently deploys a version of a line that, he said, resonated as he studied religious texts with a rabbi years ago: “No one is required to complete the task — but neither are we free to refrain from it.”
It helps him connect with people of diverse faiths, and is a flash of his own day school roots.
He keeps kosher, he said, is “always” home for Sabbath dinner and admires how former Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, an observant Jew, practiced his faith in his long career in politics, a subject the men have discussed over the years.
He works on Saturdays — the Jewish day of rest — but observed Rosh Hashana in synagogue and fasted and attended Yom Kippur services last week.
Mr. Shapiro will have a significant national platform if he wins. Asked whether he aspired to be the first Jewish president, he insisted, “No!”
“God willing, I’ll have the chance to serve as governor,” he said, “and that is all I am focused on doing.”
At Hymie’s Delicatessen in Merion Station, Pa., Democratic-leaning diners brought up antisemitism concerns unprompted during a recent lunchtime rush.
Mindy Cohen, 64, said she opposed Mr. Mastriano “because of his stance on antisemitism, on religion, on abortion.”
Stanley Isenberg, 98, drew parallels to how both John F. Kennedy and former Gov. Alfred E. Smith of New York, the Democratic presidential nominee in 1928, faced anti-Catholic sentiment. He said he was especially angry at Mr. Mastriano’s references to the Jewish day school, an attempt, he believed, “to tell those people who don’t like us that, to be sure and know that Mr. Shapiro was Jewish.”
Down the street, at an upscale kosher restaurant, some were more open to Mr. Mastriano. David Keleti, 51, leaned toward the Republican ticket, but questioned some of Mr. Mastriano’s positions, citing, in particular, the Jewish school issue.
“I just don’t think that he’s been effective in responding to these charges,” Mr. Keleti said.
The matter of Mr. Mastriano’s associations has bothered some of the Pennsylvanians who talk to the political director of the group Republicans4Shapiro, Craig Snyder, who is Jewish. He opposes Mr. Mastriano for many reasons, but said concerns about antisemitism alone should be “disqualifying.”
“Is the candidate an antisemite or only a friend of antisemites?” he said. “It’s just crazy that this is even an issue. ”
In Pittsburgh, Mr. Saul — who lost friends in the synagogue shooting — said memories of the attack four years ago this month prompted “a certain degree more of concern” about Mr. Mastriano’s associations.
“He may not be antisemitic,” said Mr. Saul. “But the fact that he seems to have some antisemitic supporters that he hasn’t forcefully denounced makes me anti-Mastriano.”
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