Republican Jim Bognet went on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show last week to promote his candidacy for Congress in northeast Pennsylvania.
Following a standard GOP playbook, Bognet tied the district’s Democratic incumbent to high-profile national Democrats like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But Bognet spent the bulk of his airtime criticizing another politician over his response to the coronavirus pandemic: Gov. Tom Wolf.
“Let’s open the economy back up in a safe way and stop having lectures every day from Gov. Wolf, who’s been a horrible leader,” Bognet said. “... Why hasn’t he been talking to the business owners that are auctioning off equipment because they need to feed their family? Instead he’s stuck in his office in Harrisburg. It’s disgusting.”
Bognet posted the interview on Facebook and paid to promote the video, which has been seen as many as 45,000 times, according to Facebook data.
Every two years, Republican congressional candidates spend millions of dollars on campaign ads portraying their opponents as puppets of Pelosi, who has led the House Democratic caucus for more than a decade and is deeply unpopular among Republicans. They’re still doing that. But during a spring primary season overshadowed by the pandemic and the debate over reopening the economy, governors have been thrust into the national political spotlight — and, for some, into fights with Trump.
In Pennsylvania, that means Republicans have increasingly focused their ire on Wolf ahead of the June 2 primary, especially after he condemned local officials and businesses as “cowardly” for planning to reopen without state authorization. Wolf warned such businesses could face penalties and threatened to withhold federal coronavirus relief aid from counties that violate his stay-at-home order.
Wolf has authorized 37 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to move to the “yellow” phase of his reopening plan, permitting most business to reopen. An additional 12 counties will reach that stage on Friday.
By attacking Wolf, Republicans like Bognet can signal to GOP primary voters that they are closely aligned with President Donald Trump, who during a visit to Pennsylvania last week urged Wolf to move more quickly in reopening the state. Standing with the president is paramount for Republicans in areas like Pennsylvania’s 8th Congressional District, which Trump carried by almost 10 points in 2016. Northeast Pennsylvania will also be crucial to Trump’s own reelection prospects in November.
Pushing for reopening isn’t the focal point of competitive GOP congressional campaigns — issues like illegal immigration and China’s handling of the pandemic are getting more attention. But especially on social media, wading into the reopening debate offers campaigns a chance to tap into anti-lockdown energy that’s engaging potential voters, Republicans say.
Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr., stirred the pot last week by writing an opinion article for Breitbart News with the headline “Gov. Wolf Is Threatening Pennsylvanians to Cover for His Own Failings.”
“The Republican base has certainly been more inclined to say ‘let’s move this along, let’s have some kind of organized reopening,’ ” said Chris Russell, a South Jersey-based GOP consultant who is advising Dean Browning’s campaign in Pennsylvania’s 7th District, in the Lehigh Valley.
“If there’s going to be any kind of wave of blowback against the governors, you’re going to see it from a Republican primary voter first,” Russell said.
It remains to be seen how the strategy may work in the general election. About 7 in 10 Pennsylvania adults approve of Wolf’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, including 51% of Republicans and those who lean Republican, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll conducted from late April to early May. In addition, 76% of adults said Pennsylvania was either handling business restrictions “about right" or moving too quickly to ease them. Just 23% said the state was moving too slowly to lift restrictions.
Just 45% of Pennsylvania adults approved of Trump’s handling of the outbreak, the survey found, while 54% disapproved.
For now, Wolf — a second-term Democrat who generally keeps a low profile and who, unlike some other governors, has not criticized Trump — is a popular GOP target.
“These Republican candidates are in a race to the dark corners of our society, going for the vote of conspiracy theorists, COVID-19 deniers, and ReOpen protesters," said Beth Melena, a spokesperson for Wolf’s political team.
“So good luck to them in November,” Melena said in a statement. "The vast majority of Pennsylvanians approve of the job Governor Wolf is doing because he’s been a thoughtful, responsible leader protecting our health and safety during these tough times.”
Browning, the Republican running in the Lehigh Valley, invoked the Constitution as he circulated a petition on social media to reopen the state.
“WE THE PEOPLE of the Lehigh Valley hereby declare it time for you to reopen the State!" reads a Facebook ad paid for by his campaign.
Browning is running against businesswoman Lisa Scheller, and the winner will face Democratic Rep. Susan Wild in the general election. Trump narrowly lost the district to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Russell, Browning’s adviser, said that from late March to mid-May, “there was significant movement” among the GOP base “to the idea that OK, this cannot continue indefinitely. The economic pain here is real and it’s starting to hurt people.”
“You’re going to see a continued embrace of this freedom argument,” he said, “that it’s time to get back, that there are certain acceptable levels of risk.”
In the Bucks County-based 1st District, GOP challenger Andy Meehan has been holding rallies outside the Trump Store, a strip-mall storefront that sells Trump face masks in Bensalem. But Meehan hasn’t raised enough cash to pay for much advertising in his primary campaign against incumbent Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.
Teddy Daniels, a Republican running against Bognet in the 8th District, ran a Facebook ad telling voters he was “fighting for your right to earn a living."
“I am standing up to liberal Governor Wolf who refuses to open up Pennsylvania,” the ad says.
Parts of the district have become coronavirus hot spots. A meat-packaging plant in Hazleton temporarily closed after the virus infected almost 20% of employees, and an Amazon distribution center has also seen an outbreak.
In another ad, Daniels posted a photo of himself attending a rally in Harrisburg to protest Wolf’s stay-at-home order.
Mike Marsicano, another Republican in the race, paid for a Facebook ad last week featuring a photo of Wolf that declared: “Governor Wolf Needs To Go.” That ad has been seen as many as 125,000 times, according to Facebook.
And Bognet ran another ad linking to an interview he gave to Breitbart News, saying Wolf should either resign or be impeached if he doesn’t open up the state “quickly and safely.”
The winner of the primary will face Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright.
Barney Keller, a consultant for the Bognet campaign, said Wolf had insulted business owners by saying they were “selfish” for planning to reopen before receiving state approval. “I think Jim has earned a lot of respect from voters by standing up for them,” Keller said.
Bognet, he added, was “the only leading Republican who has consistently been with President Trump, and that’s a message we’re going to be talking about in the final weeks of the campaign.”