Why Pennsylvania Republicans Face a Steep Statewide Climb

After primary victories Tuesday, Lou Barletta and Scott Wagner now face formidable incumbents.

Rep. Lou Barletta, Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, gestures after talking to supporters during an election-night results party on Tuesday in Hazleton, Pa.
AP Photo/Matt Slocum
Zach C. Cohen
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Zach C. Cohen
May 16, 2018, 8 p.m.

WILKES-BARRE, Pa.—Lou Barletta stood beneath two TVs tuned to Fox News on Monday as he kicked off his primary-eve stump speech by comparing himself to President Trump.

The congressman, who won the nomination the following day by a closer-than-expected margin, conceded he was running against “a famous name” in “a big state,” and he expects Democrats to “throw everything at us that we’ve ever seen in our lives.”

Despite apparent national headwinds and an imposing incumbent in Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, Barletta expressed plenty of confidence that he can bust the odds in November, just as the president did two years earlier.

He recalled hearing “that ‘Donald Trump can’t win Pennsylvania.’ Well he won Pennsylvania. People are saying that Bob Casey won’t lose in Pennsylvania. Well, he’s going to lose in Pennsylvania.”

Barletta joins gubernatorial nominee Scott Wagner at the top of the ticket as they both seek to duplicate Trump’s victory path. But both first-time statewide candidates start as underdogs in their respective bids against well-heeled, well-liked incumbents and as Democratic voters continue to display increased enthusiasm.

Barletta, who is serving his fourth term on Capitol Hill, entered the final stretch of the primary with $1.3 million on hand as of April 25, well behind Casey’s $9.9 million. Three polls taken this year showed the Democrat leading by more than 15 points.

“It’s going to be an uphill battle because the numbers are against them, and history’s against them, and the tide is against them,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist who consulted for Barletta’s primary opponent, state Rep. Jim Christiana. “But all of those races—governor, lieutenant governor, and U.S. Senate—are winnable. It’s just going to be a tough fight.”

Barletta has leaned on Trump, who won the state by fewer than 50,000 votes. The president recorded a robocall for Barletta, calling the congressman “a very special guy” who was “one of the very first people to get behind me in Pennsylvania.” A Barletta spokesman said the call went to “hundreds of thousands of registered Republicans across Pennsylvania” on Monday.

But voters since Trump’s victory have already shown interest in swinging back to the left. Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb defeated Trump-endorsed Republican Rick Saccone in March in the high-profile special election to replace former GOP Rep. Tim Murphy. Democrats also picked up seats in the state races in November.

Those positive indicators for Democrats cropped up again Tuesday. While Republican turnout increased compared to 2014, Casey received 60,000 more votes than Barletta and Christiana combined, despite not drawing any primary challengers, while Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf attracted 10,000 more votes than his GOP opponents.

Even Trump’s endorsement is a double-edged sword: Casey raised about $75,000 within 24 hours of Trump’s February endorsement of Barletta, according to an aide to the senator.

“This election will be a choice between a candidate who fights for working families and a candidate who fights for the corporate interests that stack the deck against them,” Casey campaign manager M.E. Smith said in a statement Tuesday night. “It will be a choice between a candidate who stands up to President Trump when he’s wrong and a candidate who believes President Trump can do no wrong.”

None of that discourages Barletta, who greeted dozens of supporters for a private gathering in a Grotto Pizza to chants of “Lou! Lou! Lou!” Barletta pledged to help “make America great” simply by supporting Trump, citing low unemployment, gains in the stock market, victories against ISIS, and nascent talks with North Korea during the president’s tenure.

“What the hell is there not to like?” he said, which invited applause.

In an interview during the party, Barletta said his path to victory in the general election runs through “the same blueprint that put Donald Trump over the top here in Pennsylvania”—by appealing to “Reagan Democrats [who] are now Trump Democrats” and may be turned off by Casey’s “90 percent voting record with Elizabeth Warren.”

“I don’t need as much money as Bob Casey,” said Barletta, who assumes plenty of supportive outside groups will engage if the race determines control of the narrowly divided Senate. “Donald Trump didn’t need as much money as Hillary Clinton spent.”

Less than 20 miles away, Wagner’s last-minute tour Monday took the state senator to the backroom of a Scranton diner, as he and lieutenant governor candidate Jeff Bartos urged more than a dozen supporters to vote in Tuesday’s primary.

Wagner, like Barletta, hopes to capitalize on the success Trump found in the state. He emphasized his “blue-collar” roots (while sporting a robin’s-egg, button-down shirt) and promised to “make sure that Harrisburg doesn’t get that money that you’re getting from the federal government” under Republicans’ tax overhaul. He also warned that Wolf is “pretty close to socialism, communism” for his support of a gas severance tax.

But as Wagner and his now-vanquished primary opponents blew through $20 million—most of it in TV ads—Wolf went on the air promoting his first-term agenda, including balancing the budget and fighting energy-industry lobbyists.

“Changing the culture in Harrisburg is hard,” Wolf campaign manager Jeff Sheridan wrote in a memo released Monday. “But by making state government more transparent and responsive to Pennsylvanians, and by working to make sure the people of Pennsylvania benefit from the natural-gas industry, Governor Wolf is continuing his fight to change the way things are done so he can move Pennsylvania forward.”

Wolf’s ads don’t go unnoticed by the other side. One Wagner supporter at the Scranton event mentioned a spot in which Wolf, Zorro-style, slashes the air with a red pen. Wagner told reporters that the Democrat’s Jeep, ubiquitous in TV spots, is “a real joke.”

“Governor Wolf is going to be a tough opponent,” Wagner said. “But I think we’re going to prevail.”

After all, as he likes to mention, he works in the solid-waste-management business. “We’re going to take the trash out.”

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