It’s a summer of worry for some Pennsylvania Republicans.
A rocky July has increased concern among some party insiders that they’re lacking marquee candidates for critical statewide races next year.
First came a public blowup between likely gubernatorial candidate Bill McSwain and former Attorney General Bill Barr. Some prominent GOP donors and operatives saw it as a daft mistake that reinforced questions about his political acumen. Those insiders, largely from Southeastern Pennsylvania, have spoken to a political veteran from McSwain’s backyard — former U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach of Chester County — to gauge his interest in running for governor, according to four people familiar with the conversations, and some are hopeful that additional candidates join the fray.
Meanwhile, in the state’s critical 2022 U.S. Senate race, fund-raising reports this month showed the leading GOP contenders all lagging behind the top Democrats. None of the major Republican Senate candidates has ever won elected office, a stark contrast with the emerging Democratic field that includes an array of well-established officeholders.
The anxiety is hardly universal in the GOP, and many Republicans remain confident in their chances, dismissing the chatter as predictable political carping. But the early stages of the two races have some in the party’s establishment wing worried the GOP could blow a golden opportunity in 2022, when other factors are shaping up in their favor. Democrats could face the political backlash that usually confronts the president’s party in midterm elections. And Republicans are pointing to inflation, crime, and controversies over how schools teach students about racism as issues that could set the stage for big gains across the country.
Republicans are hoping the governor’s race delivers total control in Harrisburg (they already hold the legislature), while the Senate contest is one of a handful that could decide control of the chamber — and with it the fate of President Joe Biden’s agenda.
In a state as closely divided as Pennsylvania, the strength of individual candidates can make a difference in races that could come down to a few percentage points.
For most, the GOP concerns are more acute in the gubernatorial race, according to interviews with Republican or conservative donors and operatives. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal private discussions and candidly assess their party’s potential nominees.
Much of the worry comes from the Philadelphia region, where the party is driven by a more pre-Trump establishment. After seeing Republicans decimated in the suburbs in recent years, there’s a fear that a weak or Trump-styled gubernatorial nominee could sink even more down-ballot candidates in competitive local races.
“We have quality candidates in the race now for both governor and Senate and they are working very hard,” said Vince Galko, a Republican operative who has long worked on suburban races. “There remains a faction of the donor base that are keeping the door open for potential other candidates that may emerge.”
Guy Ciarrocchi, president of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry, said he “has heard from several people” about running for governor himself, and “I am listening” — though many in the party doubt he can muster a serious challenge.
Like Gerlach, Ciarrocchi is also from McSwain’s home county, suggesting that potential rivals don’t see McSwain, a former U.S. attorney, as an insurmountable force. Gerlach did not respond to messages seeking comment.
“People are naturally questioning who’s out there on the governor’s side and who’s going to be the right candidate,” said Josh Novotney, a GOP lobbyist from Philadelphia who has worked on statewide campaigns.
The GOP critics especially see State Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), a likely gubernatorial candidate, as a lightning rod who could win a fractured primary but make the Republican ticket unpalatable in a general election. Former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta is well-liked personally. But many Republicans believe he ran a lackluster 2018 campaign against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and fear a repeat as he now campaigns for governor.
Both are vocal Trump supporters.
McSwain was seen as a potential alternative with a prosecutor’s tough-on-crime resume and potential appeal in the state’s populous suburbs. But some argue his brawl with Barr undercut his main selling points.
McSwain, Trump revealed, had written to the former president suggesting he was blocked from investigating voter fraud allegations. But Barr, his former boss, said McSwain had crafted an intentionally misleading letter, admitted to doing it to curry favor with Trump, and had just wanted to “flap his gums” for publicity. He said McSwain had license to investigate.
Other Republicans doubted the incident would really hurt McSwain, especially so early in the race, before he has even officially entered the contest. It’s early, few voters are paying attention, and many in the GOP have soured on Barr because he rejected Trump’s baseless fraud claims.
“I wouldn’t be shocked if some people were concerned, but I don’t think it was that much damage” Novotney said. “I actually think it helps in a primary.”
Like others, he noted that insiders aired similar concerns when Toomey was the leading Senate candidate before the 2010 election. Toomey went on to win two Senate terms before deciding against seeking reelection next year, opening the door to a GOP free-for-all. Establishment Republicans were also initially horrified when Trump won their presidential nomination in 2016, only to come around when he won.
Several Republicans said these kind of complaints often arise as consultants try to drum up business by luring new people into the race. They scoffed at the idea that Gerlach could ride in as a winning candidate — he hasn’t run a campaign since 2012.
“Everybody’s just starting to get a feel for everybody,” said Joe Vichot, the Republican chairman in Lehigh County. “I do not have a concern for the strength of the field.”
He said the GOP has a diverse range of Senate options and that the pro-Trump stylings of Mastriano and Barletta could help in much of the state.
“His agenda over the four years, and what he was running on in 2020, was outstanding,” Vichot said. “I would never discourage anyone from sticking to that platform.”
In contrast to his 2018 Senate run, Barletta has kept a busy early campaign schedule. He has visited 30 of the state’s 67 counties since joining the governor’s race in May, his campaign said.
“We’d be happy to put his record up against existing candidates or any who might come forward,” said Barletta adviser Tim Murtaugh.
McSwain’s camp pointed to his resume and appointment by Trump to be the top federal prosecutor in the Philadelphia region.
“Bill McSwain is a conservative, a U.S. Marine, and was trusted by President Trump to aggressively prosecute violent criminals in Philadelphia as U.S. Attorney,” McSwain spokesman James Fitzpatrick said in a statement.
A Mastriano spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
There’s less worry on the Senate race, where insiders see credible options, but an acknowledgment that none of the GOP contenders have stood out so far.
The two most prominent candidates, Montgomery County real estate developer Jeff Bartos and Allegheny County former Army ranger Sean Parnell, failed to reach $600,000 in fund-raising during the period covering April, May, and June. They were outdone by a lesser-known candidate, conservative commentator Kathy Barnette (though Bartos added $440,000 of his own money to boost his campaign fund, and raised far more earlier in the race).
Three different Democratic hopefuls, meanwhile, were near or above the $1 million mark in the same stretch. Donations are often used as an early measure of whether candidates can appeal to political diehards.
While arguing there’s time for Bartos and Parnell to grow, GOP operatives are also watching to see if Barnette can keep it up, or if new entrant Carla Sands, Trump’s former ambassador to Denmark, can make a mark. One major question is whether Sands will put some of her considerable wealth behind her campaign.
Some Republicans noted that in a race with such high stakes, national political groups will spend big to help narrow fund-raising shortfalls.
In 2016, it was Democrats who worried they lacked a strong candidate for that year’s key Senate race. Eventual nominee Katie McGinty came within 1.5 percentage points of beating Toomey.
It’s a reminder that Pennsylvania races are often excruciatingly close, no matter what. But also that even marginal differences can matter.