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‘It’s time for him to retire’: Some Pa. Republicans want to push Trump aside after their election losses

“We can’t win races if he continues to be the head of the party," said one Republican as party insiders blamed Trump for brutal losses the GOP suffered in Pennsylvania this week.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at an election rally in Latrobe on Saturday.
Former President Donald Trump speaks at an election rally in Latrobe on Saturday.Read moreJacqueline Larma / AP

Two days after a series of stinging defeats in Pennsylvania, some Republicans in the state focused their ire on the man who has long stood at the center of their party: Donald Trump.

“If anything should be taken away from this election, it’s that we should be over Trump. If you’re not a Never Trumper yet, you should be an Over-Trumper now,” said Matthew Brouillette, the head of Commonwealth Partners, an influential conservative group in the state. “He had his moment in the sun for four years, and it’s time for him to retire from politics.”

Josh Novotney, a Republican operative in Philadelphia, said there’s been widespread blame on Trump within GOP circles after the party lost marquee races for governor and U.S. Senate, all three of the state’s competitive U.S. House races, and possibly the state House.

Trump’s presence, several Republican leaders said, continues to motivate Democrats, and his endorsements have elevated flawed candidates who fit his personal piques.

“I’ve even heard in very Trump parts of the city and the state that he is an albatross, he is hurting us, and he needs to go,” Novotney said. “We can’t win races if he continues to be the head of the party.”

The party’s national committeeman in Pennsylvania, Andy Reilly, said Trump’s late rally in Westmoreland County and hints he would soon announce another run for president weren’t helpful.

“His presence, I think, helped the Democrats’ claims about a threat to democracy,” Reilly said, though he argued those claims were overblown. “It was not constructive for the president to be hinting about his announcement.”

All spoke after Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) on Wednesday night laid his party’s weak midterm showing at Trump’s feet, saying his endorsements led the party to nominate candidates in his own mold — ones who underperformed.

“I do think this probably accelerates the erosion of his influence,” Toomey said in an interview Wednesday.

» READ MORE: Republican Pat Toomey blames Donald Trump for GOP’s election failures in Pennsylvania

He was one of more than a dozen Republican elected officials, strategists, or party leaders interviewed by The Inquirer for this story. Several worried that while Trump retains a fervent base, his abrasive style has repelled suburban swing voters, a critical bloc for the GOP in a state where Democrats outnumber them in party registration.

Republicans’ suburban support has plunged since Trump’s 2016 run.

It’s hardly the first time Republican elites have gnashed their teeth over Trump or declared him a fading force. To this point, they’ve always been proven wrong, and often hopped back on board with the former president.

But after midterm elections in which Republicans felt they blew major advantagesfrom high inflation to an unpopular President Joe Biden — the chorus has grown much louder. And this time party insiders have an alternative on the table: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who dominated his reelection campaign in a key swing state, and is widely seen as a potential presidential candidate in 2024.

The attempt to push Trump overboard nationally, and particularly in Pennsylvania, comes at a fraught moment. Trump has hinted he could launch a reelection campaign as soon as early next week. And Pennsylvania, which he won in an upset in 2016, remains both a key battleground and a point of personal pride for the former president, who comes back frequently for his signature rallies, including twice since September alone.

Trump’s endorsement this year helped carry Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Mehmet Oz through a tight GOP primary. He also endorsed GOP gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano, though well after it became clear Mastriano was likely to win. Still, Mastriano was closely affiliated with Trump as a populist culture warrior who elevated lies about a stolen 2020 election and paid for buses to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6, 2021.

As Republicans tried to make the midterms about Biden, Trump put himself in the spotlight.

“If he had sat quiet for six months and said nothing and had no rallies and not hinted that he would have run again, I think we’d have carried the Senate easily and won the House by more,” said Jeff Piccola, the former Republican chairman in York County, a GOP stronghold.

» READ MORE: Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman helped Democrats defy GOP hopes for a red wave

Not only did Trump endorse bad candidates, Piccola said, he undermined others by dropping verbal grenades on Bill McSwain, who was running for governor, and Dave McCormick, an Oz rival for Senate.

Trump continues to have significant support in deep red, rural places like Cambria County, said Jackie Kulback, the GOP chair there.

But she added, “I think we’re a purple state and that President Trump’s support in Cambria County hasn’t diminished at all, but if you go into the suburbs, he just doesn’t have the support that he once did.”

Even Lou Barletta, the former congressman who was one of the first elected Republicans in the country to endorse Trump in 2016, was critical.

“He interfered with the primary here when there was no reason for it,” Barletta said. (Barletta, like other Republicans in the gubernatorial race, had wanted Trump’s endorsement and was trying to present himself as the strongest alternative to Mastriano).

A ‘scapegoat’

Still, some Republicans warned about writing off a former president who remains the most popular figure within the party. They argued the blame should fall on Mastriano, who lost the governor’s race by nearly 15 percentage points, and the state party for failing to rally the GOP around an alternative.

“Whether you like him or not, he shouldn’t be the scapegoat for every problem that happens to the Republican Party,” said Jim Worthington, a vocal Trump supporter from Bucks County who served on the former president’s health and fitness council.

He said party insiders were the ones who failed to turn out the Republican vote and answer Democratic attacks on abortion.

“Some of the elites in the party absolutely will despise that he will announce” a presidential run, Worthington added. “The rank and file, the blue-collar voter, is going to love it because he’s their champion.”

Rob Gleason, who chaired the state party when Trump won Pennsylvania and the presidency noted that Mastriano got nearly 42% of the vote in Pennsylvania, despite a threadbare campaign.

“That’s the bottom base for Donald Trump,” Gleason said. “And that’s a pretty hefty base.”

The implication: Trump could still win a GOP primary with his enduring support, even if party insiders don’t like it.

“This particular election, I don’t think, is a referendum on the value of the president’s endorsement,” said Dave Ball, the Republican chair in Washington County.

He said Trump “maybe overstretched the brand a little” by putting his imprint on so many races but remains the leader of the GOP. “I don’t think anybody is close to displacing him in that role yet.”

‘Clearly still the leader’

Bill Bretz, the Republican chair in Westmoreland County, pointed to the huge crowd at Trump’s rally in his home county Saturday, one that included hardcore Trump supporters and a significant chunk of the state’s congressional delegation.

“He’s clearly still the leader of the Republican Party,” Bretz said.

But for some Republicans, that’s the problem.

Reilly, like Gleason, pointed to Mastriano’s support as a benchmark for Trump. But while Gleason said it shows Trump’s strength in a primary, Reilly said it also illustrates the limitations of candidates who fail to expand their support.

“In order to win statewide, we need candidates who have appeal to the center and can appeal beyond the party base,” Reilly said. “I think the Democrats effectively used him to move swing voters in their direction.”