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A Pa. Republican lawmaker eyes a run for governor — with a pitch that breaks from Trump

State Sen. Dan Laughlin of Erie County drew an implicit contrast with other GOP hopefuls who are trying to follow in the former president's footsteps.

Pennsylvania State Sen. Dan Laughlin (R., Erie).
Pennsylvania State Sen. Dan Laughlin (R., Erie).Read morePROVIDED

State Sen. Dan Laughlin, an Erie County Republican, is moving toward a run for governor, presenting himself as a “center-right” conservative who can appeal to swing voters and avoid divisive cultural feuds — and drawing an implicit contrast with other Republicans trying to follow in the footsteps of former President Donald Trump.

“If Republicans are to restore commonsense conservatism to the governor’s office,” the party needs “a candidate capable of reaching across party lines with an agenda focused on practical solutions and fiscal sanity,” Laughlin said in a statement Friday as he announced the formation of an advisory group to explore a 2022 run for governor.

He emphasized his record of winning a broad swath of voters in a swing district in one of Pennsylvania’s bellwether counties. Laughlin won almost 60% of the vote last year in a district that otherwise supported Democrats up and down the ballot — including President Joe Biden, who captured around 52% of the vote there.

Laughlin’s announcement cited his admiration for two old-guard Pennsylvania Republican governors.

“Leaders like Bill Scranton and Dick Thornburgh showed us that Pennsylvanians are less concerned about strident ideology than about policies that work for people,” Laughlin said. “My conservatism guides me, but I’m less interested in fighting the culture wars than fixing the roads and building an economy for our children.”

That approach is a sharp contrast to other Republican hopefuls in the race, such as former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta and State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who have touted their ties to Trump, a president who relished conflict.

» READ MORE: What Sean Parnell, Liz Cheney, and Rudy Giuliani show about Trump’s hold on Pennsylvania Republicans

Some Republicans argue the party needs a nominee whose appeal is less polarizing and broader, particularly in Pennsylvania’s growing and increasingly Democratic suburbs. But others hope to tap into the same energy that Trump fueled, and the former president remains a dominant figure. Laughlin’s approach could face a stiff test in next spring’s primary, a contest often dominated by the most fervent voters in each party.

Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race is expected to be one of the most hard-fought in the country. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, is term-limited. State Attorney General Josh Shapiro is widely considered the early front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

Democrats challenged Laughlin’s credentials as a moderate, noting that he signed an amicus brief for a Texas lawsuit trying to overturn Pennsylvania’s presidential election results — though Laughlin told the Erie Times-News at the time that his filing did not seek to throw out any votes or results, or allege voter fraud, but only sought to challenge the procedures authorized by Wolf’s administration.

”Pennsylvanians shouldn’t be fooled by Dan Laughlin’s attempts to paper over his record — Laughlin has been a reliable vote for Republicans in Harrisburg, and now he wants to enter the ‘super MAGA Trump’ primary,” said Pennsylvania Democratic Party spokesperson Brendan Welch.

Laughlin’s announcement touted his support for a higher minimum wage tied to inflation, decriminalizing marijuana, and economic development programs for distressed communities. He also noted his refusal to accept per-diem payments for state lawmakers.

Laughlin, 59, was elected to the state Senate in 2016 and before taking office was co-owner of Laughlin Builders, a home-building company.

Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.