Lou Barletta, a former congressman from Pennsylvania, fierce critic of illegal immigration, and vocal ally of former President Donald Trump’s, is moving toward a potential run for governor by forming a political group focused on state issues.

The new group, ChangePA(C), aims to emphasize Barletta’s views on Pennsylvania government, he said. It will also allow him to raise money and his political profile as he considers another run for office in 2022.

Barletta, the GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in 2018, blasted Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, a flash point for many conservatives.

“As a lifelong Pennsylvanian, I’ve been disappointed in the leadership out of Harrisburg for the last eight years, but it’s been especially horrifying in the last year alone,” Barletta said in a statement announcing the formation of the political action committee and shared first with The Inquirer. “Governor Wolf’s handling of the coronavirus response has been shameful.”

He cited the Wolf administration’s policy ordering that COVID-19 patients be readmitted into nursing homes — though it’s unclear if that policy led to an outbreak — hammered the state’s vaccine rollout, and said “businesses were crushed by draconian lockdowns.”

“People are demanding change in Harrisburg, and I’ve had a lot of encouragement to get involved,” Barletta said.

A Muhlenberg College poll this month showed a sharp divide on Wolf’s handling of the pandemic: 40% approved, and 41% disapproved.

The web site for Barletta’s new PAC emphasizes issues such as fighting illegal immigration and environmental regulations, supporting police and the coal and gas industries, and tightening election laws, citing “widespread mistrust,” in elections — mistrust fueled by false claims by Trump and his supporters.

Barletta’s new PAC mirrors a step taken by former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, who is also moving toward a run for governor in what could be a crowded GOP field aiming to replace Wolf, who is term-limited.

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Barletta first made his political brand as mayor of Hazleton in Northeast Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, drawing national attention for his hard-line stands against illegal immigration. He was one of the first members of Congress to endorse Trump and later became a prominent surrogate, often referred to by the president as half of his “thunder and lightning” team in Pennsylvania.

But Trump’s backing wasn’t enough for Barletta in his 2018 run against Sen. Bob Casey. Amid a Democratic wave, Barletta lost by 13 percentage points and struggled to raise money. National groups largely wrote off the race, despite Pennsylvania’s usually competitive politics.

Barletta’s allies argue that as a former statewide candidate who won 2.1 million votes (43% that year), he starts with name recognition that gives him a jump on the rest of the GOP field. They contend it will be hard for others to break through given the vast collection of Democrats and Republicans competing for voters’ attention in gubernatorial and Senate races next year.

It is still very early, with few voters tuning in to a race some 18 months away. But Barletta topped a field of five potential Republican candidates for governor, according to a February poll from the Harrisburg-based Susquehanna Polling & Research. Barletta had support from 20% of Republican voters, the survey found, and State Sen. Doug Mastriano ranked second with 11% support. The sample included just 272 registered Republicans and the vast majority, 60%, were undecided.

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Some 67% of Republican voters were familiar with Barletta, according to the poll, though about half of the people who knew of him had no opinion of him. Overall, 23% of Republicans saw him favorably.

The governor’s seat is attracting a wide range of Republican interest. McSwain and Mastriano are seen as potential contenders, and party insiders are also watching U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, former Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, and others.

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro is widely seen as the early Democratic front-runner for governor.