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Trump support a ‘double-edged sword’ for Barletta’s Senate run

Vice President Mike Pence will raise campaign cash for U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta on Monday in Philly, and President Trump has promised to campaign for Barletta in Pennsylvania. Post-Helsinki, will Barletta's close ties to Trump be an asset or a liability?

President Donald Trump, left, greets Rep. Lou Barletta, R.Pa., before a speech at H&K Equipment Co. on Jan. 18, 2018 in Coraopolis, Pa. Barletta is running for U.S. Senate.
President Donald Trump, left, greets Rep. Lou Barletta, R.Pa., before a speech at H&K Equipment Co. on Jan. 18, 2018 in Coraopolis, Pa. Barletta is running for U.S. Senate.Read moreKeith Srakocic

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum had sensed a shift in the political winds recently in favor of Republicans running in November's midterm election.

That would have been good news for U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, the Hazleton Republican seeking to unseat Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, who defeated Santorum in 2006.

Then President Trump went abroad, hammering NATO allies, embarrassing the United Kingdom's prime minister, and, finally, embracing Russian President Vladimir Putin's denial of 2016 election meddling, which is disputed by America's intelligence agencies.

Democrats were outraged. So were many Republicans.

Barletta, by contrast, praised Trump and blamed Democrats for the Putin controversy, even as Trump tried to walk back his comments.

"The president is focused too often on himself and not on things that are bigger than himself," said Santorum, now a CNN political pundit. "That's what gets the president in trouble."

Barletta's campaign is inextricably linked to Trump's political future. He took heat last month for Trump's "zero tolerance" policy of separating children from their parents at the border, supporting the president as he pushed the effort and then when he rolled it back.

That kind of loyalty gets rewarded in Trump's world.

Vice President Pence is due to headline a Barletta fund-raiser Monday at the Union League in Philadelphia. And Trump has committed to campaigning for Barletta in Pennsylvania.

Santorum said Barletta must capitalize on the president's popularity while avoiding his pitfalls.

"What Lou's job is, in my opinion, is to say: 'Look at the policy, don't look at the president,' " Santorum said.

Val DiGiorgio, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said a rough week for Trump may resonate in the southeastern corner of the state but not so much in other areas.

"It depends on where you are," DiGiorgio said. "Clearly the president is a double-edged sword for Lou. He's going to drive out the base in much of the state. Lou's going to have to build his own brand in the southeast."

Thirty-three percent of the state's registered voters live in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties — Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery — the rest in the 62 other counties.

While Casey has targeted Barletta for his ties to the president, Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Patton Mills said the party is not "running against Donald Trump" in the Nov. 6 general election. Still, she said Trump's foreign missteps "brought us to a completely different page," shifting the focus from politics to patriotism.

"I think Barletta at this point will have to go back to the drawing board," she said. "If Barletta thinks he can win the support of Trump supporters in Pennsylvania by being unpatriotic, I don't know what that path to success would be."

Barletta's relationship with Trump has always been complicated. He liked Trump's take on illegal immigration, but still hesitated to support the New York real estate developer.

"He was saying things that I was feeling and thinking," said Barletta, who built a political brand on fighting illegal immigration in Hazleton while he was mayor from 2000 to 2010.

Barletta had endorsed Santorum, a friend and fellow fantasy baseball league participant, for president. But Santorum's campaign failed to catch fire.

Santorum said Trump was the "the natural guy" for Barletta to support next.

"We really see the Republican Party as a party in a revolutionary time," Santorum said. "It has to be concerned about those who think the elites in both parties have left them behind."

Barletta announced his support for Trump in March 2016.

"I would have been the first in Congress to endorse him, but my staff talked me off the ledge for a couple of weeks," Barletta said earlier this month.

Then came the teasing from other members of Congress.

"They thought I was doomed," Barletta said. "My colleagues would laugh at me and make fun of me because I endorsed Donald Trump."

Barletta, in making his endorsement, lamented that division, saying he was "discouraged that certain members of the Republican Party have spent more time trying to figure out how to stop Donald Trump than they have trying to understand why he is so popular in the first place."

Barletta said Trump, in a June 2017 phone call, was the first person to urge him to run for the Senate. He previously had been considered for a position in Trump's cabinet.

"He said, 'You would have been good in my administration, but I needed you in the House,' " Barletta said of Trump's phone call. "'I need you in the Senate now. Announce tomorrow.'"

Barletta offered a series of stalls: He had to think about it, he had to talk to his wife.

" 'Announce tomorrow,' " Trump repeatedly replied, Barletta said.

Again Barletta hesitated, announcing his candidacy 10 weeks later.