Are Pennsylvania's Republican nominees for the U.S. Senate and governor in "dead heat" races?
That's what U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta and former State Sen. Scott Wagner claimed Monday, touting a new poll from a political action committee founded and funded by conservative activists.
Commonwealth Leaders Fund released the poll showing Barletta trailing U.S. Sen. Bob Casey by just 1.87 percentage points and Wagner trailing Gov. Wolf by just 2.74 points among likely voters.
That's a significant difference from the averages of public polls compiled by the independent website Real Clear Politics, which shows Wolf and Casey, both Democrats, each holding 16-point leads over their challengers.
Jeff Kendall, chairman of the PAC, said he could not explain the disparity in polling.
"To be honest, I was a little surprised myself," said Kendall, who runs a Pittsburgh private-equity firm that owns landfills and recycling centers. "I thought it was good news. This was an internal poll. It was something we did for ourselves. We weren't going to publicize it. But the results were surprising."
The results might have something to do with how the 2,012 respondents identified themselves in the poll, which used a computer to dial likely voters and ask questions over the phone during two days last week. A majority, 52.6 percent, identified themselves as very conservative or somewhat conservative, while 19.7 percent identified as somewhat or very liberal. Moderates made up the other 27.6 percent.
That could explain why 53 percent of those polled said they approve of President Trump's record while 45 percent disapprove and 2 percent were not sure. The Real Clear Politics average inverts those numbers, with 51.8 percent disapproving of Trump and 43.6 percent approving.
On average, 36 percent of U.S. adults called themselves conservative, while 25 percent said they were liberal, according to a 2017 analysis of poll data by Gallup.
Results of the PAC's poll were subject to a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
Barletta's campaign took to Twitter to raise money, citing the poll and asking supporters to "keep the momentum going."
Casey's camp was not impressed. Spokesman Max Steele tweeted: "Republicans created their most ideal poll possible with Trump at +8 approval and Wagner and Barletta are *still behind*".
Wolf's campaign scoffed. "Scott Wagner should stop releasing fake polls and release his tax returns," Wolf spokeswoman Beth Melena said in an email.
Commonwealth Leaders Fund offers little information about itself on its web page, and Kendall seemed as surprised to receive a phone call from a reporter as he was with the poll's results. The group says it supports candidates "who champion and lead on fundamental American principles of free enterprise, limited government and personal responsibility."
Commonwealth Leaders Fund raised $106,450 from December to June, according to campaign finance reports. Nearly 85 percent of that money came from three donors.
Gerald Alexander, a conservative author and associate professor at the University of Virginia, gave Commonwealth Leaders Fund $50,000 in May, making him the PAC's most generous donor. Alexander's opinion articles have included "Conservatism does not equal racism" and "Why are liberals so condescending?" The New York Times in May published his opinion piece, headlined "Liberals, you're not as smart as you think you are."
Howard S. Rich and David Evans Barensfeld each gave the PAC $20,000 in December. Rich, a real estate investor from Philadelphia, founded the advocacy group U.S. Term Limits in 1991. Barensfeld, a former chairman of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation in Harrisburg, runs his family's steel company in Beaver County.