December 3, 2021

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‘His Street Cred Went Up’: The Unintended Consequences of Outing the GOP Lawmakers at Jan. 6 – POLITICO

11 min read

Jessica Post, the group’s president, responded immediately. “I’m 100% in for that.”

An hour later, they identified a second lawmaker: a state representative from Michigan. “We’ll add them to the list,” Polizzi replied. The next day, in tweets and press releases, the DLCC called for their resignation, and if they refused, for Republican state leadership to strip them of power.

Post saw new names pop up in her replies to her tweets:

“Terri Lynn Weaver from TN…”

“Hey, you forgot one! @HillForMissouri was there too…”

By Jan. 7, they found four state lawmakers. By Jan. 8, they had found 12.

Polizzi spent the rest of the week hunched over a laptop at her parents’ house in New Jersey: “Immediately we were getting incoming from other people: ‘What about this person?’ ‘What about this person?’ ‘What about this person?’” she said. The list set in motion a full-time effort inside the DLCC to identify Republican legislators who attended the insurrection and “call them out” — an old-fashioned name-and-shame campaign. They wanted the lawmakers who had supported a historic assault on democracy — the state reps and delegates and assembly members who had either attended the “Stop the Steal” rally, swarmed past police barricades, or in at least one case, entered the Capitol itself — to be deemed intolerable by their own.

Eight months later, as the Jan. 6 congressional committee struggles to enforce witness subpoenas, and with all but a few members of the GOP dismissing the investigation as a partisan exercise, it is easy to forget those first few hours and days when such a response not only felt feasible, but likely. “We honestly thought that it was possible that some of these folks actually would at least face consequences or step down,” Polizzi said.

Over the month that followed, the DLCC set aside a modest sum to run digital ads about the insurrection in Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan — “Republican legislators fanned the flames. Some were even there,” the narrator says over images of destruction. As the campaign grew, expanding to any state lawmakers who propagated claims of a “rigged election” or lobbied the courts to overturn the race, the DLCC’s two-person research team sifted through local news clips, through “Stop the Steal” hashtags on Twitter, through signatures on legal briefs and letters to Congress. They collected email responses to an “insurrectionist” tip line and the video footage assembled and dissected by the obsessives who became known as Sedition Hunters. Ernest Bailey, a young researcher on staff compiled the names in internal spreadsheets.

In the end, the list grew to 21 lawmakers who fit the DLCC’s broad definition of “insurrectionist” — everything from attending the rally to joining the demonstrations on Capitol grounds — and another nearly 600 who promoted “Stop the Steal” rhetoric or signed letters or briefs calling to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Based on the current count of state houses across the country, the DLCC’s group represented more than 15 percent of all state-level Republican lawmakers.

And nothing happened.

As of this month, the only Republican legislator to step down is Derrick Evans, a West Virginia delegate who live-streamed himself entering the Capitol while shouting “We’re in! We’re in! Derrick Evans is in the Capitol!” He resigned after he was arrested on Jan. 8.

Rather than shaming Republican state lawmakers out of office, Democrats found that many of the names on the list avoided pushback from party leaders in their state, grew their political platform and online following, and in at least three cases are now running for statewide office under the banner of former President Donald Trump and his lies about election fraud.

“In terms of seeing any difference on the ground,” Polizzi said, “the only thing that we can point to is awareness of who these legislators are, but I don’t think that it has changed Republicans one iota.”

In Colorado, one is running for Senate. In Arizona, Mark Finchem, the state rep who has led the endless crusade for a 2020 audit, who turned conspiracy into national Republican celebrity, who has Trump’s endorsement and traveled with him to his most recent “Save America” rally this month, is now running to serve as his state’s top election official, a trend in three other states.

And Mastriano is no longer nameless to Democrats in Washington — “that PA senator,” as Polizzi wrote in her text on the night of Jan. 6. He is preparing a likely run for governor in his home state, where a crowded primary will give him a shot to win the backing of Trump supporters. He led a small Pennsylvania delegation on a trip this June to Arizona’s recount facility. And he has spent the months since Jan. 6 picking public fights with his own caucus, leaving state Republican fearful that he is reporting back to Trump on the progress of the state’s audit investigation.

“His street cred went up,” said Jay Costa, the Democratic minority leader in the Pennsylvania state Senate. “There’s no question.”

The first indication that the DLCC had miscalculated the moment came almost right away.

Mastriano, a 57-year-old retired Army colonel representing a south-central district that includes Gettysburg, had been a scheduled speaker at the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6, spending campaign funds to bus down Trump supporters to Washington for the event. He was given a special “VIP” designation, according to documents obtained by the journalist Hunter Walker, affording him his golf cart, but he had told everyone, from other Republican leaders, to his own followers in a Facebook livestream, that he left when the demonstrations turned violent.

When the DLCC called on Jake Corman, the Senate president and the highest-ranking Republican in the state, to strip Mastriano of his committee assignments, two Republicans in the statehouse even joined the calls for his resignation. Corman, the son of a Pennsylvania state senator, was far more enmeshed in traditional Pennsylvania GOP politics than Mastriano, who had been in office only two years. But he was also learning just how difficult it would be to balance the influence of Trump, and the conspiracy of widespread voter fraud, with his more institutionalist instincts. After suggesting there was no basis to Trump’s claims, he doubled back.

When Mastriano assured him that he “left as the horrific turmoil began to unfold,” he let it lie.

“Absent facts to the contrary,” Corman said, “the Senate has no cause to ask.”

Mastriano did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story. Corman, through a spokesperson, said he had no comment “on this issue at this time.”

Four months later, in late May, DLCC staffers saw new images of Mastriano at the insurrection that seemed to contradict his defense, showing him staying longer and moving closer to the mob than he had initially stated. Sedition Hunters compiling video footage from the riot under the Twitter handle @capitolhunters shared images of Mastriano and his golf cart cruising through the crowds past police barricades. They tracked his path from the northwest side of the Capitol to the northeast barricades, to the East Plaza, past lines set up by the Capitol Police and, in one frame, just paces from a man seen dragging away a bike rack. On the day the footage surfaced, Mastriano said in a statement that he followed the directions of Capitol Police as the day unfolded.

By then, many national Republican leaders who initially rebuked Donald Trump for his role in the riot had already recanted their criticism. Again, Mastriano faced no pushback. Instead, Mastriano was building a following, behaving more and more like the former president.

He led calls for a legislative audit of the 2020 election, pressuring his Senate caucus colleagues to do the same. He asked his supporters to call out Corman and other Republicans for not fully backing the investigation. He talked up his relationship with Trump, claiming the former president had asked him to run for governor (“He said, ‘Doug, run and I’ll campaign for you”), even noting that when he tested positive for Covid last year, it was in the White House, “in front of Trump, literally.”

Costa, the Pennsylvania Democratic minority leader, said senators told him that while they were in closed-door caucus meetings, Mastriano claimed to be texting with Trump, “filling in Trump“ on plans for the audit.

“I’m only telling you what my Republican colleagues tell me: that he’s texting Trump, ‘Corman said this, Corman did that,’” he said of the Republican leader. “And then Trump turns around and, you know, within hours, blasts Corman for not having the guts to do an audit. You know, that kind of stuff.”

There was a Republican being nationally shamed. It just wasn’t the one who had been at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

In June, Trump blasted out one of his email statements: “The Pennsylvania Senate needs to act. Senate President Jake Corman needs to fulfill his promise to his constituents… If the Pennsylvania Senate leadership doesn’t act, there is no way they will ever get re-elected!”

A week later, Trump came after Corman again: “Why is State Senator Jake Corman of Pennsylvania fighting so hard that there not be a Forensic Audit of the 2020 Presidential Election Scam? Corman is fighting as though he were a Radical Left Democrat…

“I feel certain that if Corman continues along this path of resistance, with its lack of transparency, he will be primaried and lose by big numbers…”

A full seven months after Jan. 6, the DLCC research team reopened its spreadsheets to add a new name to the list.

This was not a Republican lawmaker who they found in video footage, or in old tweets. It was John J. McGuire III, a Republican member of the House of Delegates in Virginia, who told reporters for the Washington Post during an interview that he, too, had been in attendance at the Capitol, though he said he did not enter the building.

“Nobody had video of him there,” said Bailey, the researcher who spent much of his year maintaining the DLCC’s database of Republicans. “Nobody had pictures. He just told the Washington Post. And we read it the next day and said, ‘Oh, there’s a new one.’”

“It went from this thing that was so obviously bad, that Republicans wanted to distance themselves from,” said Polizzi, “that we knew was horrible, that we thought was completely out of line, to slowly this progression — it became, ‘Well, those weren’t Trump people,’ or, ‘That was an inside job,’ or, ‘It was really Antifa’ — to now John McGuire proudly telling the Washington Post that he was there.”

“There’s a reason why representative Derrick Evans thought he could live stream this thing from the Capitol without any accountability,” said Post, the DLCC president. “A lot of these folks felt covered. This is today’s Republican Party.”

The DLCC’s counterpart on the right, the Republican State Leadership Committee, a fundraising and organizing group responsible for the party’s strength in statehouses over the last decade, has little to say about the insurrection beyond its immediate public statement condemning violence.

In Virginia, where elections for the Virginia House of Delegates will be decided this fall, the ticket is tangled up with “Stop the Steal” names and faces. The RSLC has endorsed at least two candidates who attended demonstrations on Jan. 6: Philip Hamilton, who posed in front of the Capitol holding an “End The Lie Decertify” sign, is running in the district encompassing Charlottesville, the site of 2017’s violent far-right protest. And Maureen Brody who has said she was part of a crowd where demonstrators were tear-gased, is on the ballot in northern Virginia’s District 39. A third House of Delegates candidate with the committee’s support is the attorney who represented state Sen. Amanda Chase when she sued the Virginia Senate after Democrats in the chamber censured her for a “pattern of unacceptable conduct” related to the insurrection.

Andrew Romeo, an RSLC spokesperson, said the group has “condemned the violence on Jan. 6 on numerous occasions and will continue to do so.” State Democrats, he said, have been “backed into a corner this election cycle for embracing the failed record of their far-left partners running Washington” and are attempting to “distract from the chaos they have created across the country.” Romeo did not answer questions about the group’s endorsement of “Stop the Steal”-supporting candidates.

DLCC officials say they have no plans to spend more money to unseat the 21 Republicans on its list, in part because many of them, such as Mastriano, are in safely red districts.

“The test of whether any of these insurrectionists get scathed will be November 2022,” said former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat who is chairing a new super PAC, Never Again, targeting the 147 members of Congress who voted against the certification of the election. “We never assumed that they’d have much if any pushback within their own party.”

In Pennsylvania, the opposite has been true. In the months since Jan. 6, Mastriano has succeeded in making the state party look more like him, not less.

This summer, around the same time that John McGuire came forward, Mastriano announced he would take an audit investigation into his own hands. He demanded three counties turn over their election-related equipment. When they refused, he blamed Corman for “undercutting” his efforts, resulting in a “weakened and diminished” investigation. Other state lawmakers started receiving mailers from an anonymous group, identifying itself as “private citizens NOT affiliated with ANYONE,” asking for the removal of “Comrade Corman” from his position as Senate President Pro Tempore. The mailer is a black-and-white ALL-CAPS run-on exhortation: Corman, it says, is “treacherous,” a “backstabber,” a “Sniveling Socialist RINO” — an “anti-Trump Traitor” who “obstructs patriot efforts to reverse this disgraceful act of TREASON.” Republican critics in the state describe Mastriano as a bit-player who became a soldier for Trump, willing to back his own caucus into a corner — but none of them felt comfortable touching the subject on the record.

The Republican Senate leader eventually did remove Mastriano from the audit investigation, stripping him of his committee chairmanship. But it wasn’t because of the DLCC’s list. It wasn’t because of public pressure, pushing back on the insurrection, or on the audit. It was because of Corman’s desire, he said, for a real investigation that he did it. He went on Steve Bannon’s podcast to promise the same. Mastriano, he told the Pennsylvania Capital-Star after the move was done, was “more interested in rallies and press conferences than actually doing the hard work.”

In his place, Corman appointed a new lawmaker to oversee the cause: Mastriano’s own travel companion from the June tour of Arizona’s “forensic audit” efforts, state Sen. Cris Dush.

Trump has called them both “great patriots.”

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