Florida Democrats and Jewish leaders joined religious groups in Pennsylvania in condemning Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., for his plans to appear Friday with Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor in Pennsylvania.
Mastriano’s ties to Gab, a right-wing social media site that has become a hub of antisemitic and racist commentary, have come under fire for the last few weeks.
“Do not go to Pennsylvania and do this. Be bigger than this. Be better than this,” Democratic activist Fred Guttenberg appealed to DeSantis. The Florida governor, a likely contender for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination, is currently running for reelection.
Guttenberg appeared on a Zoom call organized by the Florida Democratic Party with two Jewish leaders and with one Democratic candidate for Congress from St. Petersburg, Fla.
DeSantis is “encouraging all of the bigotry, not he himself expressing it, but by supporting Mastriano, and Mastriano is at least one or two steps ahead of Ron Desantis in fomenting this bigotry,” said Rabbi Mark Winer, president of the Florida Democratic Party Jewish Caucus.
DeSantis is scheduled to appear alongside Mastriano at a political rally Friday in Pittsburgh. Requests for comment from DeSantis’ gubernatorial office and from Mastriano’s campaign were not returned.
In April, Mastriano paid $5,000 to Gab for “consulting.” Gab bills itself as a champion of free speech but because of its lax moderation policies it has become a gathering place for conspiracy theorists and extremists, including those who espouse vicious antisemitic and white supremacist rhetoric.
In 2018, a Pittsburgh man with a history of antisemitic comments posted on Gab about his plans to commit murder at the Tree of Life synagogue, just moments before he is alleged to have shot and killed 11 people there.
In early May, Mastriano did a video interview with Gab founder Andrew Torba, and characterized Torba as standing up to censorship.
“I love my country and I’m not going to hand over the country to these people that want to turn into East Germany with Ministry of Disinformation, that want to blacklist people. You know, thank God for what you’ve done,” Mastriano told Torba. “Thank God for South African immigrant Elon Musk and others who are, like, it’s gone too far.”
Torba has been repeatedly accused of antisemitism, a charge he denies. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League wrote that Torba has “engaged in multiple antisemitic tirades on Twitter and Gab, sharing a wide array of bigoted content.”
In July, HuffPost reported that new accounts created on Gab appeared to be automatically subscribed to a handful of other accounts, including Mastriano’s, boosting his followers on the site from around 2,300 to nearly 37,000 in a few months.
Mastriano posted frequently on the site as well.
A week after the HuffPost report, the head of the Republican Jewish Coalition called on Mastriano to leave Gab.
“Jewish voters expect candidates to condemn antisemitism, whether it comes from the far left or the far right — and to shun those who espouse it,” said Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director. “We strongly urge Doug Mastriano to end his association with Gab, a social network rightly seen by Jewish Americans as a cesspool of bigotry and antisemitism.”
Mastriano distanced himself from Gab and Torba several days later.
“Andrew Torba doesn’t speak for me or my campaign,’’ Mastriano wrote on Twitter. “I reject anti-Semitism in any form.”
He added that “extremist speech is an unfortunate but inevitable cost of living in a free society” and he said that the policy views of his Democratic opponent, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, were “extreme” as well.
But the incident continues to unsettle even some on the right, such as Brooks, the director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. The RJC hosted Pennsylvania’s Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate, Mehmet Oz, for an event this week, but has yet to boost Mastriano with a similar event.
Brooks said that his group continues to have concerns about Mastriano and wants the Republican to reassure “the Jewish community [as to where] he stands as it relates to antisemitism.”
Faith leaders in Pittsburgh spoke out Wednesday against DeSantis’s appearance with Mastriano.
“Since the deadliest antisemitic act in American history took place in the City of Bridges, clergy members and activists have worked to unify the city and ensure that it remains stronger than hate,” the organizers said in a statement.
“Any embrace of political extremism poses a threat to that common goal and creates space for the same dangerous bigotry that led to the events at Tree of Life Synagogue.”
Mastriano, who won the Republican gubernatorial nomination days after receiving an endorsement from Donald Trump, has been trailing Shapiro by double-digits in recent polls. A former Army colonel, Mastriano refuses to acknowledge that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election and joined the mob of Trump supporters who descended on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in an effort to block the certification of Biden’s victory. He did not enter the Capitol, however, and has not been charged with any crimes.
DeSantis, meanwhile, has repeatedly dodged questions about the legitimacy of the 2020 election. The Florida governor, who has become one of the most high-profile Republicans in the country in recent years, is currently campaigning for a number of GOP candidates in other states, including Kari Lake and Blake Masters in Arizona, who have both embraced conspiracy theories about Biden’s victory.