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Lou Barletta is the best-known GOP candidate for Pa. governor. Is that enough?

Barletta’s campaign isn't raising much money. But his advisers say that won't matter. Here's the bet they're making.

Former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R., Pa.) in December.
Former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R., Pa.) in December.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Dave White is winning favor with Republican activists. Bill McSwain has a group pledging to spend millions on his behalf. Doug Mastriano has cultivated a following among Trump supporters and election deniers. And no one has more campaign cash than Jake Corman, the state Senate leader.

The one Republican contender for Pennsylvania governor who can’t seem to point to significant momentum of late might be the putative front-runner himself: former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta.

In closely watched financial filings last week, Barletta’s campaign reported a meager $243,000 in the bank to start the year — hardly a show of force for a candidate with a 20-year political career and who was the GOP nominee for Senate in 2018. Rivals are questioning whether he can sustain a monthslong campaign after he burned through almost three-quarters of the $1 million he raised last year. At least four candidates had more than double as much money to start 2022.

But in a primary with more than a dozen candidates, Barletta’s advisers say none of that matters. Their bet is essentially this: When GOP voters go to the polls this spring, they’ll pick the candidate they know best — the one who was among the first members of Congress to endorse Donald Trump, the only one who’s run statewide before.

“No other GOP primary candidate has the financial resources to come anywhere close to where Lou starts from in terms of built-in statewide name ID and grassroots organization,” Barletta campaign manager Jeremy Sheftel wrote in a memo to donors last week that was obtained by The Inquirer. “Lou doesn’t need to raise the most — he just needs to raise enough and the end-of-year numbers show that Lou is still ahead of the competition.”

And Barletta’s campaign says unprecedented TV spending expected in the Republican Senate primary by the ultra-wealthy Mehmet Oz and David McCormick will make it harder and more costly for Barletta’s rivals to get attention. “There has never been a political environment like this in PA history between the GOP Gov and GOP Senate primary,” the memo said, adding that no gubernatorial candidate “is going to have the resources to cut through that noise.”

» READ MORE: We're tracking the candidates running for Pennsylvania governor

No one disputes that Barletta is the best-known candidate. And some GOP insiders, including those advising other campaigns, acknowledge that if the primary were held today, Barletta would probably win. But his rivals believe time is on their side. Amid a drawn-out fight in Harrisburg over congressional redistricting, it’s possible that the May 17 primary could be delayed. That would benefit better-funded candidates who can afford to stay on the airwaves and pay staff.

More broadly, Barletta’s rivals and some GOP insiders who are unaligned in the race question what the three-term former congressman from Northeastern Pennsylvania has done since he entered the race last May to build on his many advantages.

Tim Murtaugh, a Barletta adviser, said he’s “the only candidate who is a proven, tested conservative with statewide name identification that other candidates would have to spend at least $10 million to match.”

“Lou has been running the largest grassroots campaign Pennsylvania has ever seen for the better part of a year, and has built a network of endorsements and local support in every corner of the state that no one else can equal,” Murtaugh said in a statement.

» READ MORE: From last spring: Lou Barletta is reintroducing himself to Pa. voters as he runs for governor after a rough 2018 campaign

No one questions Barletta’s MAGA bona fides.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump dubbed Barletta and another Pennsylvania congressman “Thunder and Lightning.” He was among the so-called alternative Trump electors from Pennsylvania who sent a certificate to the National Archives in case Joe Biden’s 2020 victory in the state was overturned by courts. The assembling of alternate electors in several swing states is now under investigation by the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Barletta hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing, and the campaign has noted that the Pennsylvania document “clearly states that this was done in case it was later determined that different electors were needed.”

Trump’s endorsement in the 2018 Senate race ensured Barletta would cruise to the GOP nomination that year.

No such coronation has come this time, with a field that includes three state senators, a former congresswoman, an ex-prosecutor, and others crowding the debate stage. Barletta pledged to earn Trump’s endorsement — and hired some of the former president’s top campaign aides for good measure. The firm founded by Trump’s 2020 campaign manager, Bill Stepien, is advising Barletta. Murtaugh is a former Trump spokesperson.

Perhaps one reason why Trump has stayed quiet so far: Barletta isn’t the only MAGA candidate in the race. Mastriano, the state senator from Franklin County, played a role in Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election. Trump specifically cited Mastriano and U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.) in a late 2020 phone call with top Justice Department officials in which Trump urged them to declare the election corrupt, according to a report by Democrats on the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Mastriano traveled to Washington for the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the attack, and video appears to show him passing through breached barricades set up by Capitol Police. Mastriano says he didn’t cross police lines.

He then led the charge for a partisan investigation of the 2020 election in Pennsylvania — until last fall, when Corman wrested control of the inquiry.

Notwithstanding the Harrisburg palace intrigue, Mastriano has built a considerable following among grassroots GOP activists — not just over the election, but also because of his outspoken opposition to Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic restrictions.

Barletta is aware of the threat.

“All polling we’re seeing shows this as a 2-person race between Lou and Mastriano,” Sheftel, the campaign manager, wrote in the memo.

What the memo doesn’t say is that most primary voters are undecided. And a survey taken last week by another GOP campaign found Mastriano leading the pack with 20% of the vote, according to a consultant who reviewed the data. Barletta came in second at 14%, followed by Corman and White at 6% each, and McSwain at 1.5%.

Internal GOP surveys have consistently shown Mastriano attracting that level of support among primary voters, people familiar with the data say, and establishment Republicans have become increasingly concerned that the sprawling field could help Mastriano win the nomination with only about a quarter of the vote.

These Republicans fear Mastriano would get crushed in a general election against Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general and the only established Democratic candidate.

» READ MORE: The first fund-raising reports in the Pa. governor’s race show it’s up for grabs

Barletta’s team says it’s been spending on grassroots organization, data, and digital fund-raising. Barletta is also counting on his ability to spread his message through appearances on Fox News and elsewhere. He generated significant media coverage earlier this year by raising concerns that “ghost flights” of undocumented immigrants were arriving in Pennsylvania without adequate screening. Federal authorities have said those flights are at least in part the routine transportation of unaccompanied children across the country for placement pending immigration proceedings. Adult immigrants have also been taken to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Clearfield County.

Barletta’s media appearances on the subject accounted for the bulk of $12.6 million in “earned media” he received over the past two months, his campaign memo said — using political parlance for the value of traditional media coverage that doesn’t include advertising.

Sustained messaging is important, though, and some of Barletta’s rivals are already airing TV ads. He is not.

McSwain, the former U.S. attorney in the Philadelphia region under Trump, and an allied political group have booked almost $7 million on broadcast and cable ads through the primary. His first ad went on the air last week, highlighting his service in the Marine Corps and record as a prosecutor. White has spent $1.3 million on TV ads, and Corman has booked $600,000 in airtime through Feb. 22, according to the advertising tracking firm AdImpact.

White, a former Delaware County councilman and owner of an HVAC firm, loaned his campaign $3 million last year. He got the most votes in a series of regional straw polls of GOP activists over the past few weeks, though that didn’t translate into a state party endorsement.

A third-generation steamfitter, White has been pitching himself as a self-made, blue-collar candidate. “I’m sitting here in Western Pennsylvania and we are truly the party of the working men and women. That’s where Dave White is very, very strong,” said Jackie Kulback, chairwoman of the Cambria County GOP. She also spoke highly of McSwain: “I like that he’s done a good job helping with the riots and the issues that are in Philadelphia.”

Asked about Barletta, she said: “People are looking for a fresh face. … Here’s the good thing we have going on, is if you look at the slate of candidates we have … there’s not a bad one in the bunch.”