The ad starts with American and Israeli flags fluttering beneath a stormy sky.
“Pennsylvania’s Jewish community faces a rising tide of antisemitism,” intones actor Peter Coyote in a voice that is both commanding and foreboding.
The new political spot, created by The Lincoln Project, then references the murder of 11 Pittsburgh Jewish community members killed at the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018.
“The gunman was radicalized on Gab,” Coyote says, while the screen displays antisemitic memes taken from the extremist social media platform. The ad goes on to link Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate state Sen. Doug Mastriano and his political campaign to the site, calling out Mastriano’s relationship with Gab founder Andrew Torba and referencing ads the Mastriano campaign bought on the platform.
“Mastriano knows what he’s paying for,” Coyote states. “They’re not just Nazis, Klansmen, racists and crazies: They’re his base.”
The ad is running locally in Philadelphia and Harrisburg. It can be seen in the Pittsburgh market through ad buys on various cable stations and online.
The Lincoln Project, launched by former and current Republicans, is a political action committee formed in 2019 to prevent the reelection of Donald Trump and other Republicans running for reelection in the U.S. Senate.
The Lincoln Project co-founder and board member Reed Galen called Mastriano “an incredibly dangerous person,” citing his involvement in the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, his ties to white Christian nationalism and his refusal to speak with journalists.
Galen said the Mastriano is a “true believer” and a different breed of politician than typical cynical Republicans —like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, he said — who are willing to say anything to get elected and remain in power.
“He’s a true believer,” Galen said. “He really believes this stuff. I think the way you can typically tell the difference between a cynic and a true believer is that when the true believer is faced with a completely normal decision to moderate on something, they don’t. They double and triple down on the crazy.”
Gab, Galen said, is a cesspool of antisemitism, racism and conspiracy theories. It’s also where many of Mastriano’s followers get their news, he conjectured.
“A guy who holds the cross up higher than he does the Constitution — this is a place he would go looking for help,” Galen said.
Earlier this year, it was revealed that the Mastriano campaign paid $5,000 to Gab for “consulting services,” received a $500 contribution from Torba and had all new Gab accounts automatically follow Mastriano’s Gab account. Mastriano eventually deleted his Gab page after a string of criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike.
In 2022, The Lincoln Project is focused on races it determined are most crucial to free and fair elections — governors’ races in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada and secretary of state races in all of those states except Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, Galen said.
The PAC is targeting what it terms “soft Republicans,” whom they believe make up almost a quarter of the electorate.
Galen said the goal isn’t to turn all of them against voting for Republican candidates, and that turning 6% is enough to win an election. Moreover, The Lincoln Project isn’t trying to make all of those voters cast ballots for Democratic candidates; rather, it hopes to create enough doubt that some voters will simply not vote in the races the PAC has targeted.
“That means that’s one vote from Mastriano toward Shapiro — but if you can’t, just skip the race altogether and that’s a vote away from Mastriano,” Galen said. “We saw that actually worked to help defeat Trump.”
The new political ad produced by The Lincoln Project has raised concerns about both Gab and Mastriano, but another question remains: Is it appropriate to insert the shooting at the Tree of Life building into political advertising?
Maggie Feinstein, director of the 10.27 Healing Partnership, doesn’t appreciate the insertion of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting into a political ad, nor is she a fan of giving a hate-mongering website like Gab free advertising.
“I wish everyone would stop doing that, desperately,” she said.
And while Feinstein couldn’t say definitively that each survivor or victim’s family is triggered by seeing the Oct. 27 massacre referenced in a political commercial, she said it will affect some.
“I can promise you, there are individuals triggered by the ad,” she said. “It’s always a question of what is being gained in the name of this. I think that’s something people have to be asking — did this political campaign have to put the Tree of Life in the center to be effective?”
Galen said he was aware the ad could potentially disturb survivors of the massacre. Because of that, he said The Lincoln Project communicated with the Tree of Life community and changed the tone of the spot based on the concerns of the community. He did not specify with whom he communicated.
“We don’t ever want to be in a position to exacerbate someone’s lifelong pain,” he said. “But I think that was a clean attack on this guy. He has done these things. We didn’t make it up. He went and hired this guy and bought these ads. From our perspective, we’re always going to have the utmost respect for the members of the Tree of Life who lost their lives and their families. We want to find a balance between making sure we aren’t making their lives more difficult and getting our point across.”
The Chronicle did not receive a response from the Mastriano campaign for this story but in a fundraising email to his supporters, Mastriano called the ads “vicious” and “dishonest,” saying that “not a word of these ads holds up to any scrutiny.”
The Lincoln Project commercial, titled “Tide,” is available to view at https://www.youtube.com/c/TheLincolnProject. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.