On Wednesday, several of the state’s congressional Republicans praised the move to purge Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.) from House leadership for the sin of calling out former President Donald Trump’s election lies.
As Pennsylvania Republicans maneuver for nationally watched gubernatorial and Senate races next year, this week shows Trump’s influence remains as powerful as ever — to the delight of many Republicans who still see him as their leader, and the consternation of others who fear his imprint could cost them winnable elections with sweeping national implications.
“I’m thrilled about Sean Parnell. I’m ecstatic,” said Lee Snover, chair of the Northampton County Republicans, who described Parnell as “in the model of Trump.”
She said that meant “being a winner, being a doer.”
Parnell, a decorated Army veteran who headlined a 2020 campaign rally with Trump Jr. and spoke at the GOP convention, actually lost his first campaign, falling short in a right-leaning congressional district outside Pittsburgh last year.
That’s an unusual launching point for a statewide race where the electorate will be more Democratic. But some GOP insiders see Parnell as a 2022 primary favorite anyway — illustrating the enduring political power of affiliation with Trump and the voters who adore him.
Like Snover, Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.) also presented the former president as a picture of GOP success in explaining his vote against Cheney. It was “not good” to have a party leader criticizing the person who in 2020 got more votes than any Republican presidential candidate ever, Perry told Fox Business.
It was an accurate but incomplete data point: Trump also helped drive historic turnout for Democrats. President Joe Biden got the the most votes of any presidential candidate ever.
That isn’t lost on some Republican strategists who worry that Trump’s grip on the party, its ongoing embrace of his election conspiracies, and his influence with GOP primary voters could bite them in Pennsylvania. Because while he inspires many voters, he also spurs furious backlashes, and some Republicans blame him for costing them decisive Senate races in Georgia.
Consider that 83% of Pennsylvania Republicans saw Trump favorably, according to a February survey by Harrisburg-based Susquehanna Polling and Research. Even after Trump supporters attacked the U.S. Capitol, his standing in some conservative areas was higher than before he lost. But 85% of Democrats and 61% of Independents said they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate affiliated with Trump.
“That is a brick wall with a couple layers of thickness to it,” said Susquehanna president Jim Lee, whose clients include GOP candidates. “What’s an advantage in the primary becomes a liability in the fall.”
Trump will be just one factor among many next year, and some key political elements are in Republicans’ favor. But in races that could come down to slim margins, this week illustrated the potential dilemma.
But instead, Trump loomed over the week as he settled scores with Cheney and kept promoting conspiracy theories.
Democrats, facing their own competitive Senate primary, see Trump as their party’s best motivator.
“Loyalty to Donald Trump is the ultimate litmus test for Pennsylvania Republicans, and in a matter of minutes, they proved that their loyalty to Trump is more valuable than the truth,” state Democratic Party spokesperson Brendan Welch said after the Cheney vote.
The character and approach of Pennsylvania’s 2022 GOP nominees, and their willingness to embrace his election falsehoods, could have huge ramifications. The next governor could sign or veto tighter voting rules inspired by Trump’s fraud claims. And the new administration will oversee the 2024 presidential race in a pivotal battleground state.
Pennsylvania’s Senate race, meanwhile, is one of a handful that could determine control of the chamber, and the winner would have a vote if there’s a repeat attempt to overturn the next presidential election results.
The current Republican senator, Pat Toomey, forcefully opposed the push to toss Pennsylvania’s results and voted to convict Trump in his second impeachment trial. He had decided earlier not to seek reelection.
Despite some Republicans’ fears, Trump backers see an upside in the way he inspires his supporters. Republican candidates hope to tap into that power.
But Trump’s political approach has worked exactly once in Pennsylvania, when he won the state by just 44,000 votes in 2016, breaking a long string of Democratic presidential victories.
He lost by 81,000 votes in 2020, and others who tried to follow his path — including Lou Barletta and Scott Wagner in the 2018 races for Senate and governor — have suffered bad losses, drawing the Democratic backlash without the offsetting Republican surge.
“I don’t see any diminution of Trump’s popularity within the party,” York County Republican chair Jeff Piccola said last month. “What I don’t see is that popularity necessarily transferrable to other people.”
Hours before Parnell’s campaign launch, 12 GOP county chairs and state lawmakers, including several from deeply conservative areas, signed a letter urging him to instead run again for U.S. House, and saying the party should unite for Senate behind Jeff Bartos, a real estate developer who lives on the Main Line.
Bartos, who has longstanding ties to the traditional GOP establishment, ran digital ads this week saying Parnell “sided with liberals,” and linking to a 2016 tweet in which Parnell said Trump should release his tax returns — tacitly acknowledging the importance of the president’s base.
Parnell won early endorsements from Reps. Mike Kelly and Guy Reschenthaler, who wrote Friday that “it will be crucial to choose a Republican nominee who won’t back down” and that the GOP “cannot send another career politician, socialite, or out-of-touch multimillionaire” to the Senate.
Parnell never conceded in his 2020 congressional race, despite losing by more than 2 percentage points to Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb. He co-led a lawsuit with Kelly seeking to disenfranchise 2.6 million Pennsylvanians by throwing out all the state’s mail ballots in an effort to keep Trump in power.
Yet Parnell’s team says he will be more than a Trump acolyte. His three-and-a-half-minute launch video never mentioned the president, focused heavily on his background as an Army Ranger who earned a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart in Afghanistan, and called for uniting the country.
“Will we cherish our freedoms? Or will we submit to a government that tells us how to live, what to drive, who to worship, and what to think?” Parnell says.
There’s still a long time before next year’s primary, new candidates could emerge, and other issues could take hold as the 2020 election and Capitol riot move further into the past.
But it’s unclear who those new candidates might be. The next person who seems likely to enter the race is Carla Sands, Trump’s former ambassador to Denmark, who, according to Republicans who have met with her, has privately touted her ability to win his endorsement.
And it seems foolish to expect Trump to move to the background.
“Trump won this state and he won it twice,” Snover said. “He won it in 2020 as well.”
He didn’t. But many Republicans still see him as a key to victory.