Never mind Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Palm Beach, Fla., is where the party’s Senate nomination is likely to be decided.
PHILADELPHIA — The likely GOP candidates in Pennsylvania’s open Senate race come in three familiar flavors: anti-Trump, Trumpy and Trumpiest.
Though President Donald Trump lost Pennsylvania in 2020 and will have been out of office for nearly two years by the time voters cast their ballots in the Senate election, the Republican primary here is already revolving around him — creating a potential dilemma for the GOP in one of the nation’s most important races next year.
Multiple former Trump administration officials are eyeing the Senate seat. One likely contender has close ties to the Trump family that could give him a major leg up in the primary. Behind the scenes, other candidates have fostered relationships with former Trump aides or are working hard to develop them.
“The way I divide it is you’ve got super-MAGA Trump, Trump-adjacent and not-so-much Trump,” Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Pennsylvania-based Republican consultant, said of the likely GOP Senate field. “All of the former appointees would obviously be in the super-MAGA-Trump part. A Jeff Bartos, I think, would be in the Trump-adjacent part. A [former Rep.] Ryan Costello-type figure, or himself if he gets in, would be in the more not-so-Trumpy part.”
Bartos, a real estate developer and the most high-profile contender to officially declare his candidacy, has been cast by his allies as a middle-of-the-road Republican who could win over suburbanites in the Philadelphia collar counties where he lives.
Yet at the same time, Bartos donated and helped raise money for GOP poll watchers at the Philadelphia Convention Center in 2020 when the ballots were being counted. And he traveled to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida resort and residence, for a recent GOP donors retreat. Bartos was also careful to give a nod to the former president in his campaign launch video.
“Donald Trump represented someone listening to millions of Pennsylvanians who felt like no one was fighting for them,” Bartos said in the ad, which featured him driving around the state. “And we cannot go back to the days when elected officials in Washington thought of Pennsylvania as just two cities and a whole lot of farmland in between.”
Along with Bartos, Sean Parnell, a former congressional candidate who spoke at the 2020 Republican National Convention and is close to Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., has been talking with state party leaders about running. Mike Kelly and Guy Reschenthaler, two House members from Pennsylvania who have been Trump loyalists, are possible contenders. Also considering: Kenneth Braithwaite, who served as Trump’s Navy secretary; Carla Sands, Trump’s ambassador to Denmark; and John Giordano, a member of Trump’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in 2019.
Former Rep. Ryan Costello, a vocal critic of Trump, has expressed interest in campaigning as well. And 2020 congressional candidate Kathy Barnette and attorney Sean Gale have thrown their hats in the ring. A news release announcing Gale’s run said that “the only path to victory” is with a candidate who is pro-Trump.
“President Trump is still very popular among Republicans,” said former GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, a top Trump ally in the state. “There’s no denying that the Republican Party in Pennsylvania is still a party of Trump.”
Earlier this year, Steve Bannon, a former White House chief strategist to Trump, told POLITICO that “any candidate who wants to win in Pennsylvania in 2022 must be full Trump MAGA.”
Potential and declared Senate candidates are making the case to local party leaders that they are the best-equipped to win the endorsement of Trump himself.
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With so many boasting ties to the former president and his administration, many are hopeful they will win his imprimatur. For instance, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted in February, “My friend @SeanParnellUSA is a strong America First conservative and has my support for any office he decides to run for in 2022!!!”
“When you talk to these people, everybody thinks that they’ll have the former president’s support,” said Sam DeMarco, chair of the Republican Party in western Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County. “These people all believe, because there’s a connection there, they could possibly get his endorsement.”
A similar Trump-centric dynamic is playing out in the 2020 gubernatorial race. Barletta is looking at possibly running for governor and said he will make a decision in the next few weeks. A recent poll by Susquehanna Polling & Research, a firm whose clients have included conservative groups, found Barletta with an early lead in the primary.
William McSwain, a former U.S. attorney under Trump, has taken steps toward running for governor. State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who visited Trump at the White House after the 2020 election and helped lead a hearing on unsubstantiated election fraud, is another likely contender.
And at least one potential gubernatorial candidate has paid a visit to Trump at Mar-a-Lago, said an aide to the politician: Rep. Dan Meuser.
Pennsylvania’s 2018 midterms revolved around Trump as well. After Barletta became one of the first elected officials to back Trump in 2016, Trump returned the favor and endorsed the northeastern Pennsylvania politician early in the Senate primary, which he went on to win. Scott Wagner, a then-state senator who boasted in 2016 that he was going to buy 20,000 Trump signs, captured the gubernatorial nomination that year.
Both candidates were defeated in the general election by double digits, prompting some voices in the Republican Party to make the case for a bigger-tent approach. But that hasn’t yet come to fruition. Instead, many GOP activists have demanded more loyalty tests to Trump: Earlier this year, several county parties in Pennsylvania censured Republican Sen. Pat Toomey for voting to impeach Trump after the insurrection at the Capitol.
However, amid calls among some Republicans to avoid divisiveness ahead of 2021 local elections and the midterms next year, the state GOP declined to censure Toomey and voted to rebuke him instead.
Some party officials argue that with President Joe Biden in the White House, Republicans are rapidly putting aside their differences and will be united for the 2022 primary, regardless of which candidate captures the nomination and how closely they tie themselves to Trump.
“The media wants that to be the crux of the campaign. I think the campaign is going to be much more than that,” said Charlie Gerow, a GOP strategist in Pennsylvania. “The primary campaign is going to be about individual candidates and their individual views for the country’s future and their individual abilities.”
Still, when he listed a number of issues that will likely dominate the race — China, immigration, Biden’s spending — it is clear how much Trump is still influencing the party. And there is no doubt that GOP contenders will be scrutinized by party activists and operatives on how closely they align themselves with the former president.
Nicholas, talking about Bartos’ nod to Trump in his introductory video, said, “What I took from it is someone who said the minimum he needed to say about 45, so as to not have people think, ‘Why didn’t you mention 45?’”
Bartos spokesperson Conor McGuinness quickly struck back and said that he included a mention of Trump in the spot “because no one has ever fought harder for the forgotten men and women of Pennsylvania than President Trump.”
“The only person who would manufacture that as an issue,” he added, “is a swampy DC consultant.”
FILED UNDER: PAT TOOMEY, GOP, PENNSYLVANIA, DONALD TRUMP, DONALD TRUMP 2020,
Author: HOLLY OTTERBEIN
Source: Politico : Pennsylvania GOP launches ‘super MAGA Trump’ primary