PA GOP Leaders Point to Trump for Midterm Losses

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February 5, 2022, could go down as the day that former President Donald Trump’s domination of the Pennsylvania GOP peaked.

On that day, the party decided not to make endorsements ahead of the May primary. The move effectively ceded the choice to Trump, who fatefully selected state Sen. Doug Mastriano for governor. Mastriano, the most well-known Trump enthusiast in a nine-candidate field, proceeded to win nearly 43% of the GOP vote. The choice proved historically catastrophic, dragging down the rest of the state’s Republican ticket and instigating a blue wave.

Republican Party officials from across the state told RealClearPennsylvania that they’ve had enough.

“Our gubernatorial candidate was the leading face of denying the election results in 2020 and I think that came home to roost,” Republican state Sen. Dan Laughlin of Erie County said of Mastriano. “I lay that right at Donald Trump’s feet.”

Trump repeatedly pushed GOP candidates to tout election-fraud claims during the campaign. In Pennsylvania, he highlighted Mastriano’s futile 2020 election investigations, which vaulted the state senator to popularity.

“Republicans, to win elections, have to pass a two-way Trump litmus test,” said Brenton Davis, who became the first Republican Erie County executive in two decades following his 2021 win. “First, you have to be ‘Trump enough’ or face being labeled a ‘RINO,’” in the primary. “Then you have to go into the general election with the second litmus test from independents asking if you’re too Trumpy. It’s a double-edged sword that only cuts Republicans.”

Winning Erie County was essential in Trump’s 2016 election. Mastriano lost the swing county by nearly 20% to winning Democratic gubernatorial candidate and current Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

A high-ranking state party officer who declined to be named echoed Laughlin’s and Davis’ assessment.

“The party needs to move on from Trump,” the official said. “His constant media attention has just become toxic at this point … Mastriano was tied to election fraud. We need to get away from the whole electoral fraud issue. It’s not a winning one for Republican candidates.”

Sam Demarco, chairman of the Republican caucus of Allegheny County, also underscored this sentiment.

“As one of President Trump’s biggest supporters, I worked very hard for him in both 2016 and 2020,” he said. “But his behavior following the 2020 election has soured moderates and independents to the point where not only is his electability in question, but anybody that he’s endorsed, as the midterms showed. It seems like the electorate has decided to move on.”

Andy Reilly, Pennsylvania’s Republican national committeeman, spoke more vaguely, saying, “The DNC did a very good job of using President Trump in this election as a defense to their policies.” But he also noted that, “I think party leaders need to have a sincere, direct, confidential discussion about where we go from here and look to areas that have been successful and follow that path, such as Florida Gov. DeSantis.”

In a phone interview, State Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, like others, pointed to the overturning of Roe v. Wade as another factor in the GOP’s poor performance. And exit polls indicate that the issue could have motivated Democrats. However, more Pennsylvania Republicans turned out than Democrats, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis. And abortion doesn’t explain how the GOP’s dramatic shortfalls spread into deeply red areas where abortion is unpopular, like the southwestern counties of Westmoreland, Washington, and Cambria counties.

Trump’s final pre-election rally, for example, was in Westmoreland County, which Ward represents. The county exemplifies numerous southwestern Pennsylvania areas that for decades were home to a strongly Democratic, unionized voting base that nonetheless held conservative cultural values. Voters there began to drift to the GOP amid deindustrialization in the 1990s and early 2000s. The rightward shift picked up speed with the Tea Party movement and culminated when both Mitt Romney and Trump exceeded 60% of the vote in both 2012 and 2016, respectively. Days after Trump’s rally, though, Mastriano appeared to have reversed that trend, carrying the county by a mere 6.5%. Ward won it by 34.2% in 2020.

Ward said that the election-fraud issue harmed Mastriano. She nonetheless said that the party needs to “continue to work on election integrity issues such as voter ID, which are important to people of Pennsylvania, but we need to move forward.” Indeed, a 2021 Franklin & Marshall College poll found that 74% of Pennsylvanians favor voter ID.

Jackie Kulback, chairwoman of the Cambria County GOP, also said Trump’s and Mastriano’s election-fraud preoccupation “absolutely hurt” in her county. Cambria’s story is similar to Westmoreland’s: a formerly Democratic bastion that is now a Republican stronghold. Democrats held a registration advantage here until 2017, despite many in the party increasingly splitting their tickets in favor of Republicans. Ultimately, Trump won it by 27% in 2016. Mastriano underperformed that win by 10%.

“I spoke with people who’d say, ‘my vote won’t get counted,’” Kulback said, referring to Republican voters who had become apathetic about voting thanks to conspiracies promoted by Trump. “I’ve spent literally days of my life watching recounts of past elections, including 2020. Honestly, with all the checks and balances in the whole process, you have to have impossible levels of collusion for there to be any significant voter fraud.”

Another example is Washington County, where Trump won by 25% in 2016, thanks to promises of a revived economy. Mastriano won the county by only 2.44%.

Dave Ball, chairman of the Washington County GOP, said that the party has neglected issues that matter to voters. In his area, these include energy policy, jobs, crime, and the opioid epidemic. The county sits atop the Marcellus shale, and natural gas fracking has boomed here since 2010, even as hardship caused by the decline of the local coal industry and overall deindustrialization has not fully abated. In 2021, the county saw overdose deaths nearly reach their 2016 peak of 109, while murders spiked. A local coroner told the Observer-Reporter newspaper in July that when he started in that job in 1992, “there were two drug overdose deaths recorded, both from prescription drugs.”

“I’ve asked a few of our state representatives recently what they’d run on if they ran right now, and they couldn’t answer,” Ball said. “Around here, energy is a major issue because it’s our economy. Who is seriously working on bringing new businesses into this area, and how are you doing that? All I get is blank stares.”

“That problem starts nationally,” he continued, explaining that the party often ignores vital economic issues in favor of red-meat politics and relitigating past elections. “We had a big event with 23 congressmen who came to present their new Commitment to America. That lasted two news cycles. Have you heard anything about it since?”

Notably, Shapiro chose to begin his general election campaign in Johnstown, Cambria County’s largest municipality. Once the Shapiro campaign knew that Mastriano would be the opponent, spokesman Manuel Bonder said in an interview, it decided to ramp up existing plans to bring an issue-focused message to Republican areas.

“Throughout this entire campaign, Josh Shapiro focused on the issues that matter most – creating jobs, improving education and public safety, and protecting real freedom,” Bonder said.

Mike Baker, treasurer of the state GOP, said that Shapiro’s success in key western Pennsylvania counties indicated that it’s time for the state party’s priorities to change. “I think we need to put a focus on candidates that are going to run on the pocketbook issues that affect voters’ daily lives.”

On the evidence of exit polls, issue polling, testimony from voters, and the results of the election themselves, this would mean undoing the party’s conspiratorial image in favor of solutions-based policies such as reducing grocery bills, increasing energy production, tackling crime and the opioid epidemic in a nonpartisan way, and crafting stances on social issues like abortion that stay rooted in conservative values while also respecting moderate voters. Indeed, ABC News’s Pennsylvania exit poll found that 8% of voters favored making abortion illegal in all cases, 32% favor making it legal in all cases, and 56% favor a middle road.

To make such issue-focused reforms and compete in this purple, the Republican Party will have to learn from the failed Mastriano campaign and put forth competent candidates who attract moderate voters. Such a shift would preclude Trump from dictating the state party’s direction.

“It was a huge flaw that we did not endorse in these races,” said Ward. “I hope after this election result that folks who were against it decide that it is better to endorse. I think those folks are a minority in the state party.”

“We can elect solid, qualified, conservative candidates who have an appeal to the center,” said Reilly, noting the example of retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey. “Toomey was a very conservative candidate but had a center appeal.”

Last night, Trump announced his candidacy for the 2024 election. It remains to be seen whether the Pennsylvania GOP will put its own survival ahead of the former president’s ambitions in a state where the midterm results confirmed his widespread unpopularity.

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