Battle lines are being drawn in what is emerging as a two-candidate race to lead the Pennsylvania GOP, and several prominent Republicans with close ties to President Donald Trump are coalescing around one contender.
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The winner will be tasked with reinvigorating a party that in the last two years has suffered big electoral losses, including races for governor and U.S. Senate by wide margins. It has struggled to raise money and build a formidable ground operation.
Trump was the first Republican presidential nominee to win Pennsylvania in a general election since 1988, and the Keystone State is again expected to be a critical battleground in 2020.
“It’s a position that really demands a low-key, workmanlike, studious approach to bringing complex factions together,” said Jeff Coleman, a Harrisburg-based GOP strategist, adding that both Comfort and Tabas could fit that profile.
The race is shaping up as something of a repeat of the contentious 2017 campaign for party chair, when DiGiorgio defeated Tabas by two votes out of more than 300 cast by state committee members.
Then as now, Tabas is backed by former Chairman Rob Gleason and running against a candidate supported by Montgomery County power broker Robert Asher, who is one of Pennsylvania’s two national committee members.
There’s at least one new wrinkle, though: endorsements from national Republicans close to the Trump campaign. On Sunday, Parscale tweeted his support for Comfort, following endorsements from Ted Christian — a senior adviser to the Trump campaign’s Pennsylvania operation — and David Urban, an informal adviser. Trump allies Corey Lewandowski and Sean Spicer also expressed support, and Trump Jr. jumped in on Tuesday.
“I’m proud to be supporting Bernie Comfort for @PAGOP Chair!” he wrote on Twitter.
Some Republicans say the endorsements could backfire among rank-and-file party officials if the Trump campaign is seen as picking favorites. The party chair has responsibilities that go well beyond helping the Trump campaign, such as collecting voter data, and candidate recruitment up and down the ballot.
Charlie Gerow, a Harrisburg-based strategist and GOP state committee member, said he had heard some “grumbling and grousing” among local party officials about endorsements from people affiliated with the Trump campaign.
“Generally I would counsel against that kind of insertion into a local party election. They never work out well,” said Gerow, who is supporting Tabas. “I don’t think it’s changing a lot of minds.”
Gleason, of Cambria County, noted that most of those endorsers “don't even live in Pennsylvania.”
“Why they are weighing in, I really have no idea,” he said, though he added they had a right to do so.
The Trump campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
There is no apparent major ideological divide in the race and each contender has connections to the party establishment.
Comfort, 51, of Lehigh County, was elected vice chair of the party in 2017. Her supporters say she has built relationships with Republicans across the state as former longtime executive director of Anne B. Anstine Excellence in Public Service Series, a GOP initiative to train women in politics and government.
They are also hopeful that she could help the party make inroads among women voters, especially in the suburbs, where many women have revolted against the GOP under Trump.
Former U.S. Reps. Lou Barletta and Tom Marino threw their support behind Comfort in an email to fellow Republicans Tuesday, describing her as a “lifelong Republican who is faithful to President Trump and dedicated to seeing him reelected in 2020."
“As a single mom who lives in the suburbs and spent my adult life helping to elect Republican women, no one knows better than me how the president’s economic policies are helping to improve the lives of Pennsylvanians," Comfort said last week upon becoming acting chair.
Tabas, 63, a Philadelphia lawyer at the firm Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, is also well-regarded in the party and could benefit from a push by some to clean house of DiGiorgio’s leadership team. But some harbor lingering concerns about his association with Gleason, who is unpopular among many Southeast Pennsylvania Republicans.
Uniting the party will be no easy task. That was made clear on Friday, when Scott Wagner, the GOP nominee for governor last year, sent a letter to state committee members saying it was “time for everyone to look in the mirror and come to the realization that our party is fractured, divided, and many people are fed up and disillusioned.”
“Because of [Asher’s] politics, we have a political machine that lines the pockets of Harrisburg political consultants, but delivers loss after loss to the Republican Party,” Wagner wrote. If the party allows “backroom deal-making to continue,” he added, it “will stand little chance of delivering a victory in 2020 for Donald Trump.”
In an interview, Wagner said he was only aware of two candidates for party chair and by default would be supporting Tabas. He is not a state committee member and thus will not have a vote.
Many Republicans say Wagner ran an underwhelming campaign and has no one to blame but himself for his loss. But some said his concerns about a fractured party — and Asher’s influence — were not unique.
Asher declined to comment on Wagner’s letter. He said Comfort would “represent the Republican Party spectacularly.”