In front of a Republican candidate forum in Lawrence County on Wednesday night, organizers screened a recorded message from former President Donald Trump.
“I appreciate that Western Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania are fighting so hard not only for the 2020 presidential theft and hoax, but for our country itself,” Trump told the room. “You are great patriots! We will make America great again!”
With more than a dozen Republican hopefuls vying for Pennsylvania’s next governor, Trump’s influence on campaigns and elections is – like this six-minute video – gripping center stage.
This was reinforced last weekend with the official entry into the race of State Sen. Doug Mastriano, a conservative arsonist from Franklin County who has been among the most vocal supporters of Trump’s lie that the election was stolen.
While Mastriano and another longtime Trump supporter, the former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, have built campaigns in Trump’s image, others have hired former Trump staffers. And even those toeing more traditional conservative lines have signaled they will aim to appeal to his “America First” base, which makes up a sizable portion of Pennsylvania’s GOP primary electorate.
“You’ve got a party that’s very aligned with Trump’s policies and with the president,” said Pennsylvania GOP strategist Mike Barley, a consultant to another candidate, a Delaware County businessman. David White. “So I don’t think you’ll see a lot of light between the candidate and the support for those policies and the president.”
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Democrats, united behind their only candidate, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, are dubbing the GOP estate “The Trump Primary” in emails and fundraising messages.
Yet it is not yet clear to what extent the candidates will parrot the former president or seek his endorsement and support during the campaign trail. Many see Governor Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia as a roadmap for how to return the governor’s mansion to a swing state. Youngkin was endorsed by Trump but largely kept his distance from him in the general election.
And in Pennsylvania, the candidates are united against Governor Tom Wolf, whom they seek to replace. Their messages to voters at the opening events signal that the loudest refrain of the race may be more against Wolf and his pandemic policies than pro-Trump.
It’s also unclear if Trump endorses any gubernatorial candidate. He backed Army veteran Sean Parnell in the GOP race for the U.S. Senate to have Parnell drop out after a bitter child custody battle became public knowledge.
He had a relationship with Barletta, who lost a lot despite Trump’s endorsement for the Senate in 2018. Mastriano claimed last year that Trump had asked him to run, but a day later Trump adviser Jason Miller tweeted that Trump had not approved of the run. Before launching his bid, former Philadelphia U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain sent Trump a letter seeking his support, which the former president later posted online.
Several Republican strategists have said they doubt Trump will endorse a gubernatorial nominee, though the former president is still unpredictable.
One thing most agree on: In a gubernatorial primary that currently has 14 candidates where voters can look for signals of who to support, an endorsement could tip the scales. The field is one of the largest in recent history and growing, with former Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai indicating it is jumping this weekend.
Northampton GOP Chairman Lee Snover warned that Trump’s endorsement could be one factor, but not the only one.
“A Trump endorsement has an impact, but I don’t think it’s exclusive,” Snover said. “The Republican Party is full of smart people. They vote for themselves.
Trump lost Pennsylvania in 2020 by 1 percentage point, a definite defeat but not a blowout. Republican analysts said the margin combined with the former president’s approval rating among Republicans (about 81%) indicates there is no need for distancing, at least during the primary campaign.
“Some will embrace it more, some won’t. That’s [about] the relationship of each individual and if they perceive it, they can even get approval,” said Pat Poprik of the Bucks County GOP.
Barletta, a longtime Trump ally, hired the company run by Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, who led Trump’s 2020 campaign. State Senate Pro Tempore Chairman Jake Corman has Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway in 2016. McSwain hired former Trump campaign aide James Fitzpatrick to lead his campaign.
Barletta’s alliance with Trump was the subject of controversy last week when it became public that he had cast a ‘procedural vote’ declaring that Trump had won the election, despite not being not a certified voter. These fake certificates were sent to the National Archives suggesting Trump won seven states he lost. Another gubernatorial candidate, GOP consultant Charlie Gerow, also signed despite not being a valid presidential voter.
“At that time, no one knew what was going to happen, and this was done to prepare for any eventuality,” a Barletta campaign spokesperson said Thursday of the certificate.
The fact that a candidate supports Trump’s “big lie” that the election was stolen has become an alleged litmus test for a Trump endorsement. The Senate candidates wouldn’t even say whether they would have certified Joe Biden as Pennsylvania’s winner in the election.
When asked so far in forums and debates whether they thought the 2020 elections were free and fair, the candidates who participated – a list that does not include Mastriano or Barletta – gave Narrow answers focused on specific issues, like support for voter ID and opposing recent changes to Pennsylvania election law.
Corman vacillated between telling his colleagues there was no need to relaunch 2020 to engage in a full “forensic investigation” into the election.
Mastriano, a former Army colonel, has been the main supporter of Trump’s efforts to nullify certified election results. His campaign mimics Trump down to style and soundtrack. He announced his run last weekend at a four-hour event with appearances from Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, and Jenna Ellis, a Trump campaign lawyer.
Mastriano also follows Trump’s playbook by portraying himself as an outsider, elected to the Senate in 2019 and a foil to members of his party’s establishment.
“They are pissing their pants right now. Sorry – not sorry,” he told a packed house of supporters at Gettysburg.
Bucks County mother-of-two Liz Diehl said, like many of her supporters, she got to know Mastriano at his freedom rallies, opposing pandemic shutdowns and following his “discussions by the fireside”, which attracted tens of thousands of viewers.
“He’s very, very consistent about everything patriots believe,” she said. “We want God and family first, freedom, medical freedom…and there are many of us behind him.”
It is still unclear how widespread this popular support is. But with 14 candidates, one with a loyal base that turns out could win the nomination.
This raises another question for Republicans: Can a candidate highly aligned with Trump win statewide?
“There’s this concern that winning the primary and winning the general election are two separate events because we’re still the minority demographic in Pennsylvania,” Westmoreland County GOP Chairman Bill Bretz said. “So we need a candidate [who] can convey our platform while having the confidence of those registered as Democrats that they will represent them well.
In two GOP candidate forums, there wasn’t much political disagreement — a sign this primary is about the messenger, not the message, Bretz said.
Barley, along with the white campaign, doesn’t think Republicans need to worry about distancing themselves from Trump to win down the road. He thinks problems have played the biggest role in the race in Virginia: frustrations over schools, inflation and jobs — all of which are likely to happen in Pennsylvania.
“I don’t know if voters care how close you are to the former president when their commodity prices skyrocket, they can’t find people to work in their businesses,” Barley said. “I think you have a frustrated electorate and they are looking for something different.”