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On board the Jeff Bartos bus, a Senate candidate blends business talk with culture-war rhetoric

Republican primaries often boil down to choices between candidates loyal to Trump and others trying to chart a different course. Bartos is trying to have a little of both.

Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Jeff Bartos at the Italian Market in Philadelphia on July 22 during a statewide bus tour.
Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Jeff Bartos at the Italian Market in Philadelphia on July 22 during a statewide bus tour.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

As Jeff Bartos stood before voters in a suburban Philadelphia restaurant, he spoke of three priorities for his Republican Senate campaign: helping small businesses, competing with China, and “restoring the American Dream for our children.”

The first two are standard economic fare for Bartos, a Lower Merion real estate developer cut from the GOP’s traditional Chamber of Commerce cloth, who delivered a similar message as Republicans’ 2018 nominee for lieutenant governor.

But about that American dream? That’s where Bartos — who was on Day Four of a 12-day bus tour across Pennsylvania — took a sharp detour into the politics of cultural grievance embraced by former President Donald Trump and the party’s most conservative forces.

Citing two daughters in college, Bartos said students now have to be careful about what they say or write for fear of a failing grade or being “canceled” by classmates.

“The idea that in our institutions of higher learning, those voices that would stand up and present a different message are shunned into silence or chilled because of their conservative beliefs is something that is fundamentally un-American,” Bartos told about 40 voters in Souderton late last month.

Republican primaries often boil down to choices between candidates loyal to Trump and fewer trying to chart a different course.

Bartos is trying to have a little of both. Against a growing number of Trump allies angling for the former president’s support, Bartos is mixing traditional conservative pocketbook politics with more reactionary rhetoric about cultural progressivism.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania Republicans have a path to victory in 2022. Pro-Trump candidates may not follow it.

In an interview, Bartos said his message hasn’t changed since 2018.

“I don’t just throw out a sound bite. That’s not who I am,” he said. “I don’t think anything has changed in how I communicate.”

But in fund-raising pitches and during his first extended stretch of campaigning, he spoke to some of the cultural issues animating the party, including how schools teach students about racism.

Bartos is widely seen as one of the leading GOP Senate candidates, thanks partly to his ability to plow cash into his own campaign. He’s lent his campaign $840,000 so far, giving him more money in the bank than former congressional candidate Sean Parnell and conservative commentator Kathy Barnette.

Pennsylvania’s Senate race is one of the most competitive in the country and will help determine which party controls the chamber after 2022. Incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey isn’t seeking reelection.

» READ MORE: Here’s what fund-raising reports from Pa.’s 2022 Senate candidates tell us

On a day that started at a Chester County manufacturing firm and wound through all five counties in the Philadelphia region, Bartos rode in style in a 45-foot bus wrapped with a picture of him and his campaign logo. A TV was tuned to the Weather Channel as friends and advisers sat in booths or on couches. At one point, an aide told the candidate to stop micromanaging navigation as the driver plotted a course from Bucks County to Philadelphia.

Bartos briefly ran for Senate in 2017 before switching to the four-candidate primary for lieutenant governor, winning with 47% of the vote. That cast him as backup to former State Sen. Scott Wagner, an ardent Trump supporter who seemed at times unable to control his anger toward Gov. Tom Wolf.

By comparison, Bartos came off as chill and wonky — a smart candidate who didn’t take himself too seriously. He even forged an unlikely friendship with John Fetterman, who went on to be Wolf’s lieutenant governor and is now an early Democratic front-runner in the Senate race. Fetterman has said he encouraged Bartos to run, though Bartos said he doesn’t remember that.

Now Bartos is practicing a bit of a political juggling act. In one sentence, he can sound like a centrist on CNBC warning about China’s influence on computer superconductor supply. In the next, he can sound like a Fox News pundit lamenting that voters are “forgotten” in Washington.

Bartos spent much of the pandemic raising money for small businesses through the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund, a nonprofit he cofounded that provides forgivable loans to more than 1,000 of them. He told the midmorning gathering at Franconia Café that he raised $3.6 million in the last 15 months.

“When I talk about saving Main Street Pennsylvania, it’s not just words for me,” he said.

Bartos frequently says that what unites Americans is far stronger than what divides them. But he also spends a lot of time talking about those divisions.

He cited one conversation with a Lancaster coffee shop owner, who he said confided that she gave up on following state pandemic regulations in December. He then compared voters’ approval last year of a referendum limiting the governor’s emergency powers to the Revolutionary War and World War II.

“We, I like to say, fired the first shot in the battle to restore freedom and liberty, not only here but across the nation,” he said.

» READ MORE: School board meetings turn tense with debates over critical race theory and masking

Bartos has also denounced critical race theory, a decades-old concept once mostly confined to academic and legal circles that suggests racism is structurally embedded in government and other institutions. It has become a political flash point and a proxy for Republicans like Bartos who warn of looming “cultural Marxism.”

Very few districts actually teach the theory itself. But Bartos called it “state-sponsored racism” being pushed on elementary school students. Pressed to name a Pennsylvania district that teaches critical race theory, Bartos said that he knew of none and that his comments center on one in Virginia. That district denies teaching the theory.

Some of Bartos’ primary opponents are vocal election deniers. Bartos acknowledged that Joe Biden won Pennsylvania and the presidency and said he, his wife, and two daughters voted by mail, but Bartos also favors an investigation of the 2020 election, especially how mail ballots were used. Such calls have increasingly become a litmus test in GOP primaries in Pennsylvania and elsewhere as Trump has continued his lies of a stolen election.

The Bartos tour made a quick swing through Bucks County, where local business owners complained about U.S. Postal Service lags and challenges finding workers willing to take entry-level wage jobs.

Back on the bus, Bartos retreated to a rear cabin that serves as both a bedroom and makeshift office for fund-raising calls. The bus rolled south to Philadelphia’s Italian Market, where Bartos’ wife and daughters joined him for a walk down a bustling Ninth Street.

The family ducked in and out of cheese and butcher shops and restaurants, with Bartos recounting for several business owners how he used to take his daughters to the market on Saturdays to roam and shop when they were younger.

The day wrapped up at Geno’s Steaks, an obligatory stop and photo-op for any candidate. Bartos strapped on an apron and stepped to a sizzling grill, slapping down meat under the tutelage of general manager Jeff Beres.

“That’s awesome,” Bartos said as Beres presented him with a parting cheesesteak, whiz, wit.

Beres joked about running an orderly business. Bartos saw an opening.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said. “Washington’s a bit of a mess.”