ALLENTOWN — Jeff Bartos roamed the lunchtime crowd at the Trivet Diner last Monday, introducing himself as the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor in Pennsylvania. A trio of ladies listened and then asked him to repeat his name.
"When you see the blue signs that say Wagner-Bartos, I'm the Bartos," he replied with a smile. "I'm like Ringo. Lieutenant governor is not as flashy."
That's one way to put it. The top of the ticket, former State Sen. Scott Wagner, had three days earlier posted a video on social media vowing to "stomp all over" Gov. Wolf's face "with golf cleats." Wagner's attempt to walk it back devolved into another rant about Wolf.
While Wagner has flashes of volatility, Bartos exudes a wonky calm, a voice of reason preaching easily accessible conservative beliefs. His stump speech in three counties that day knocked Wolf as not improving the state's economy, even while calling the Democratic incumbent from York County "a very decent man."
Bartos, a real estate developer from Merion in Montgomery County, notes that Pennsylvania has natural resources, institutions of higher learning, people eager to work. All they need, he adds, is lower taxes and fewer regulations.
And there is something else Bartos emphasizes at each stop, an appeal for comity, even as he speaks to partisan crowds brimming with anger.
"As divided as the country seems on television, it is not like that when you travel around Pennsylvania," Bartos told about 35 Republican volunteers as they dug into sandwiches and salads. He urged them to turn off the television and spend time with friends, go bowling or to the county fair, even speak to someone with whom they disagree on politics.
The crowd wanted to discuss public-education funding and legislation to eliminate property taxes. But they also had complaints about "sanctuary cities," such as Philadelphia, and claimed Democrats were sneaking socialism onto the agenda.
Sean Gill, vice chairman of the Lehigh County Republican Committee, said he had wondered for months if his party could match Democratic enthusiasm. Then came the controversial hearings to confirm President Trump's nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh. What followed was a surge of Republican interest.
"I was very surprised by that," Gill said. "That has never happened before. Not even in 2016 when Trump was running. So something happened, they energized, and that's what we're dealing with right now. Now, whether that carries all the way to November, we'll find out."
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton beat Trump by 51 percent to 46 percent in Lehigh County.
‘A bully pulpit and an opportunity’
This was not Bartos' original plan. In April 2017, Bartos, who had been active in party politics and fund-raising but had never run for public office, announced a challenge to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey. He dropped that bid 4½ months later to join Wagner's ticket after it became clear Trump would back U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta for Senate.
Bartos said that he was reluctant at first but that Wagner, a York County trash company owner, asked for his help digging into policy, especially on economic development and education. Wagner also predicted he would be "in the china closet, breaking things," while Bartos could assure everyone it would all work out.
"It can be a tremendous platform and a bully pulpit, and an opportunity to move issues and an agenda forward, but only if the governor and lieutenant governor work well together," Bartos said.
This is an unconventional year for the position. John Fetterman, mayor of Bradford, Allegheny County, defeated the incumbent, Lt. Gov. Mike Stack III, in the May Democratic primary. Wolf, no fan of Stack's and eager to add Fetterman's populist fans to his base, did not intervene.
Fetterman, 49, and Bartos, 45, have run a polite campaign, with one debate focused on issues. Both were born in Reading Hospital in Berks County and speak highly of each other, although Fetterman criticizes Wagner.
No matter who wins, Wolf or Wagner, there is little doubt his second-in-command will be considered for higher office.
Fetterman, who ran unsuccessfully in the 2016 Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate, is considered a potential challenger to U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Lehigh County Republican, in 2022. Bartos, who lives in a new congressional district dominated by Democrats, would be an obvious contender if Toomey decided not to seek a third term. While campaigning, however, he declined to discuss anything but a possible Nov. 6 victory.
Yet at each stop that day, with the end in sight, Bartos told crowds he is already feeling "nostalgic" for the trail. He said he was grateful to be invited into homes to hear the life stories of so many Pennsylvanians. He sounded like he was proselytizing for campaigning.
‘Watching the Christians thrown to the lions’
After Allentown, Bartos headed to the Berks County Republican Committee's fall dinner in Reading, his hometown, where the partisan fervor was full-throated. Trump defeated Clinton by 53 percent to 43 percent in Berks.
Clay Breece, the local party chairman, compared Democratic opposition to Kavanaugh's nomination to a "coup d'etat attempt" that ignited Republican voters.
"They're furious," Breece said. "They were watching a Roman Colosseum event. They were watching the Christians thrown to the lions, literally, in our day and age."
Bartos agrees the hearings sparked something "very visceral and powerful" in the base. "It energized voters who may have otherwise stayed home, who are tending to be more conservative," he said.
At the dinner, a pastor's invocation vows, "We are not here to allow evil to rule the land." There was more talk about socialism, along with condemnation of media reporting on the midterm elections, which drew booing in the ballroom of the Stokesay Castle, once a wealthy businessman's summer home, now a restaurant and bar.
Addressing the crowd of about 150, Bartos said he was proud to be campaigning in his hometown. He referred to Wagner as "a Tasmanian devil" he can't keep up with, despite being 17 years younger.
The stump speech hits similar notes as his earlier stop. And, again, he tells the crowd to turn off television.
"If you watch too much TV, you would think our country is coming apart at the seams," Bartos said, urging people to talk to others in their communities. "I can tell you, having now traveled and met so many people, that we are not a divided commonwealth."
‘An honor to serve you’
Bartos closed out the day at the Lancaster County Republican Committee's fall dinner, where 250 people in a hotel ballroom listened to speeches casting Democrats as barely disguised socialist mobs.
Kirk Radanovic, the new party chairman, said Republican enthusiasm "has gone through the roof" in recent weeks, evidenced by what he saw working a booth the previous week at the Manheim Farm Show. The Kavanaugh hearings, he said. "were the pivot point" for the election.
"The intensity of people ready to vote, wanting to do something, outweighs what I saw in 2016," he said. "They were incensed at what was happening to Kavanaugh. They felt it wasn't fair, and it was just manufactured."
Trump defeated Clinton in Lancaster County by 57 percent to 38 percent.
Radanovic and U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker, seeking a second term, said they had watched rising Democratic voter enthusiasm and wondered if their party could catch up. Now, they're feeling more confident about Wagner and Bartos trailing in polls.
"I think you will see that silent majority, that Republican enthusiasm that we saw two years ago, come out again," Smucker said. "So that race is going to be a lot closer than the polls are showing right now."
Bartos again tells the crowd the state is not so divided. And, again, he thanks everyone for their support and predicts he will be back.
"This has really been the honor of a lifetime," he said. "I have genuinely loved just about every minute of the last 20 months."