In the wake of the election, Shapiro used his perch as Pennsylvania attorney general to fight efforts in the commonwealth to overturn the election, becoming a staple on cable television and one of the national faces of the Democratic fight against election lies. And now, with Republicans making election denier state Sen. Doug Mastriano their gubernatorial nominee, Shapiro is making what the January 6 insurrection says about the future of Pennsylvania a central tenet of his gubernatorial campaign.

At a time when some Democratic candidates across the country are turning away from focusing on Republican efforts to overturn the 2020 election and the insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, Shapiro has done the opposite, using them as a core argument right alongside the economy, education and other political issues.

The reason is clear: His general election opponent is Mastriano, a prolific purveyor of the baseless belief that the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump.

“When I launched my campaign for governor in October, long before we knew who I would be facing, I said that voting rights and democracy would be on the ballot here in Pennsylvania,” Shapiro said in a recent interview with CNN. “It’s still on the ballot. There’s just such a clear contrast between me and my opponent on this issue.”

He added: “I was in court defending our free and fair, safe and secure elections while he was siding with the insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6. The issue remains the same, but the contrast couldn’t be clearer.”

A Mastriano aide did not respond to a request for comment.

With Democrats expecting November’s elections to be difficult for the party, a range of elected officials and operatives have publicly and privately advised candidates to focus more on economic issues — what the party is doing to combat inflation and what Congress has done to create good-paying jobs — than last year’s violent insurrection and election denial.

“Most everyday people are worried about their kids getting a good education, worried about getting paid for, making sure their roads are fixed, being able to connect to high-speed internet,” North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, the chair of the Democratic Governors Association, said in December. “The political process issues, I’ve never been a real fan of making them a central part of messaging.”

Shapiro derided Democrats who worry about this topic — “I really don’t care what the DC pundits say. They’re typically wrong” — and said candidates, like voters, can focus on more than one issue at a time.

“What I hear from people is kind of all of the above and that is, they’re worried about their kids’ schools, they’re worried about public safety, they’re worried about the economy. And I spend a great deal of time talking about that,” he said. “But they also kind of instinctively understand that the foundation for the work we need to do on all of that rests with making sure we’ve got a free election, where when you pick candidate A or candidate B, your vote actually counts.”

Shapiro’s opponent

Mastriano’s own rise has been intertwined with the January 6 insurrection and false claims about the 2020 election.

The state senator was central to pushing Trump’s falsehoods and held a “hearing” at a hotel in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, shortly after the election, where Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani made baseless claims of electoral fraud. Weeks later, Mastriano chartered buses to Washington for the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally and was at the US Capitol that day.

Mastriano’s attorney told CNN that the Republican candidate has handed over some documents to the House select committee investigating the January 6 riot in response to a subpoena he received in March. The attorney, Tim Parlatore, also said Mastriano has agreed to sit down with the committee.

The news comes after a source familiar with the matter told CNN that Mastriano was interviewed by the FBI last year about the planning around the January 6 rally and the breach of the Capitol.

Amid all of this, Mastriano has not been dissuaded from his baseless views on the 2020 election and, instead, has made them central to his gubernatorial campaign.

He has said he wants to force Pennsylvanians to “reregister” for future elections, saying at a debate in April that by asking people to reregister, he is effectively “going to start all over again” on the way the commonwealth holds elections. Mastriano has also pledged that, as governor, he would end no-excuse voting by mail and has touted the fact that, as governor, he would nominate a secretary of state — the person in charge of running Pennsylvania’s elections and signing off on its electors.

Focus on the January 6 insurrection has accelerated this month as the House select committee holds public hearings.

‘January 6 is relevant’

Whether Democratic candidates will continue to talk about January 6 on the campaign trail, is an open question.

Shapiro argued in an interview that his GOP opponent makes it not only necessary, but critical, that he uses his campaign to talk about election denial.

“What happened at the Capitol on January 6 is relevant,” Shapiro said. “Listen, my opponent was at the Capitol on January 6. He bussed dozens of people there. He marched to the Capitol.”

Shapiro backed up this focus in his first general election speech, attacking Mastriano’s focus on “freedom” by telling an audience in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, that “it sure as hell isn’t freedom when he tells you, you can vote, but he’ll pick the winner. That’s not freedom.”

“The reason why I raise the points about freedom … is because he has made this notion of freedom central to his campaign,” Shapiro said, arguing his focus on the election is as forward-looking to what he would do as governor as it is backward-looking to what Mastriano said around the 2020 election. “To me, it is a complete farce because what he’s really doing is saying, ‘I, Doug Mastriano, will define freedom on my terms and force you to live under those terms.'”

CNN’s Zachary Cohen and Paula Reid contributed to this report.

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