Ahead of a Republican candidates’ forum in Lawrence County on Wednesday night, organizers projected a recorded message from former President Donald Trump.
“I appreciate that Western Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania is fighting so hard not only for the 2020 presidential theft and hoax but also for our country itself,” Trump told the room. “You’re great patriots! We will make America Great Again!”
As more than a dozen Republican hopefuls run to be Pennsylvania’s next governor, Trump’s influence on the campaigns and the election is — like that six-minute video — taking center stage.
That was reinforced last weekend with the formal entry into the race of State Sen. Doug Mastriano, a conservative firebrand from Franklin County who has been among the most vocal proponents of Trump’s lie that the election was stolen.
While Mastriano and another longtime Trump backer, former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, have built campaigns in Trump’s image, others have hired former Trump staffers. And even those running along more traditional conservative lines have signaled they will aim to appeal to his “America First” base, which represents a sizable portion of Pennsylvania’s GOP primary electorate.
”You have a party that’s very much aligned with the Trump policies and the president,” said Pennsylvania GOP strategist Mike Barley, a consultant to another candidate, Delaware County businessman Dave White. “So I don’t think you’re gonna see much daylight between the nominee and support for those policies and the president.”
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Democrats, united behind their lone candidate, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, are dubbing the GOP field “The Trump Primary” in fund-raising emails and messaging.
Still, it’s not yet clear how closely candidates will parrot the former president or seek his endorsement and support on the campaign trail. Many see Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s win in Virginia as a road map for how to flip the governor’s mansion in 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 Gov. Tom Wolf, whom they’re seeking to replace. Their messages to voters in the opening events signal the race’s loudest refrain may be more against Wolf and his pandemic policies than pro-Trump.
Whether Trump endorses a gubernatorial candidate is also unclear. He endorsed Army veteran Sean Parnell in the GOP race for U.S. Senate only to have Parnell drop out after a bitter child custody battle was made public.
He’s had a relationship with Barletta, who lost badly despite winning Trump’s endorsement for Senate in 2018. Mastriano claimed last year that Trump asked him to run, but a day later Trump adviser Jason Miller tweeted that Trump had not endorsed in the race. Before he launched his bid, Philadelphia’s former U.S. Attorney, Bill McSwain, sent Trump a letter seeking his support, which the former president later posted online.
Several Republican strategists said they doubt Trump will endorse a candidate for governor, though the former president is always unpredictable.
One thing most agree on: In a gubernatorial primary that currently has 14 candidates where voters may be looking for signals of whom to support, an endorsement could tip the scales. The field is one of the biggest in recent history and growing, with former Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai indicating he’s jumping in this weekend.
Northampton GOP chair Lee Snover cautioned that Trump’s endorsement could be a 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 definitive defeat but not a blowout. Republican analysts said that margin combined with the former president’s approval rating among Republicans (about 81%) indicates there’s no need for distancing, at least in the primary campaign.
“Some will embrace him more, some won’t. It’s [about] each individual’s relationship and if they perceive they can even get the endorsement,” said Pat Poprik, of the Bucks County GOP.
Barletta, a longtime Trump ally, hired the firm led by Bill Stepien and Justin Clark, who ran Trump’s 2020 campaign. State Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman has Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s 2016 campaign manager. McSwain hired former Trump campaign aide James Fitzpatrick to run his campaign.
Barletta’s alliance with Trump was the topic of some controversy last week when it became public that he had cast a “procedural vote” declaring Trump had won the election, despite not being a certified elector. Those 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 elector.
“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.
Whether a candidate supports Trump’s “Big Lie” that the election was stolen has become a presumed litmus test for a Trump endorsement. Candidates in the Senate wouldn’t even say if they would have certified Joe Biden as Pennsylvania’s winner in the election.
When asked at the forums and debates so far if they believe the 2020 election was free and fair, the candidates who have attended — a list that doesn’t include Mastriano or Barletta — have given narrow answers focused on specific issues, like support for voter ID and opposing the recent changes to Pennsylvania voting law.
Corman has vacillated between telling colleagues there was no need to re-litigate 2020 to committing to a full “forensic investigation” of the election.
Mastriano, a former Army colonel, has been the chief proponent of Trump’s push to overturn certified election results. His campaign emulates Trump down to the style and soundtrack. He announced his run last weekend at a four-hour event with appearances by Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, and Jenna Ellis, a Trump campaign lawyer.
Mastriano is also following Trump’s playbook in casting himself as an outsider, elected to the Senate in 2019 and a foil to establishment members of his party.
“They’re pissing their pants right now. Sorry — not sorry,” he said to a packed room of supporters in Gettysburg.
Liz Diehl, a mother of two from Bucks County, said like many of his supporters she got to know Mastriano during his Freedom Rallies, opposing pandemic shutdowns and by following along to his “fireside chats,” which got tens of thousands of viewers.
“He’s very, very consistent on everything patriots believe,” she said. “We want God and family first, freedom, medical freedom … and there are a lot of us behind him.”
Still it’s unclear how widespread that grassroots support is. But with 14 candidates, one with a loyal base that turns out could win the nomination.
That raises another question for Republicans: Can a very Trump-aligned nominee win statewide?
“There is that concern that winning the primary and winning the general election are two distinct events because we are still the demographic minority in Pennsylvania,” said Westmoreland County GOP chair Bill Bretz. “So we need a candidate [who] can convey our platform but still have the confidence of folks registered as Democrats that they’ll represent them well.”
In two GOP candidate forums, there hasn’t been much policy disagreement — a sign this primary is about messenger, not message, Bretz said.
Barley, with the White campaign, doesn’t think Republicans need to worry about distancing themselves from Trump to win down the road. He thinks issues played the bigger role in the Virginia race: frustrations over schools, inflation, and jobs — all of which are likely to come up in Pennsylvania.
“I don’t know that voters care how close you are with the former president when their prices of goods are through the roof, they can’t find people to work in their businesses,” Barley said. “I think you have a frustrated electorate and they’re looking for something different.”