HARRISBURG — Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania campaigned for months without saying whether he’d vote for Donald Trump, and waited until barely an hour before polls closed last Nov. 8 to reveal that he had, indeed, voted for his party’s presidential nominee.
That was then, this is now: the candidates widely seen as favorites to become the Pennsylvania GOP’s 2018 nominees for U.S. senator and governor are unabashed supporters of Trump.
Scott Wagner, the York County state senator who wants to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, and U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, the Hazleton resident who is vying to take on Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, were early supporters of Trump.
They were prominent Trump backers well before he trounced the competition in Pennsylvania’s primary on his way to the nomination, when Toomey and many party officials were still worrying about Trump’s candidacy.
Now, with polls showing weakening support for Trump’s performance as president, campaign consultants and political analysts see a risk in being closely identified with Trump in next year’s midterm election that, if it follows historical patterns, will be unkind to the party of the president.
Barletta and Wagner counter that they see support for Trump as strong and strengthening, making the president a safe bet with voters rather than a risky campaign companion.
“I might argue that it’s stronger today because they feel betrayed by people in Washington who are not supporting the president,” Barletta said. “They voted for him and, you know, Bob Casey would be one of those people. I think a state like Pennsylvania, a blue-collar state, President Trump’s support is still very strong.”
Wagner said he doesn’t pay attention to Trump’s polls or controversies. Trump, he said, is generally trying to do the right thing, and already providing peace of mind to business owners that they won’t get smacked by more government regulations or taxes.
“Businesses are feeling better, they’re more confident,” said Wagner, who runs the waste-hauling business Penn Waste that he founded. “Heck, I see it in my business. Business owners are not getting up each morning wondering what’s the next executive order that’s coming out.”
On paper, 2018 will carry headwinds for Republicans: The party of the president typically loses seats in Congress in a midterm election.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s Trump supporters do not necessarily have an overwhelming sentiment to rely on next year: the New York real estate mogul and TV celebrity barely eked out a victory over Hillary Clinton in the state — by less than 1 percentage point of the vote — even with historic levels of support in rural, exurban and even some Democratic wards.
Those margins edged out huge deficits in most Democratic strongholds like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, plus the heavily populated and moderate Philadelphia suburbs.
Toomey’s winning strategy included an emphasis on moderation. He was sharply critical of both Trump and Clinton. He skipped the GOP convention in Cleveland, and he never once appeared on the campaign trail with Trump. He ultimately won by twice the percentage margin as Trump’s.
Wagner and Barletta will sink or swim with Trump, said Christopher Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
“The reality for both Wagner and Barletta, if they are to get their nominations, is they have no choice but to fully embrace the president because they are going to be tagged as proxies for the president, and with that can come some upside, but also considerable risks,” Borick said.
A key challenge for Wagner and Barletta will be to manufacture the same energy that motivated Trump’s voters, Borick added.
In any case, Wagner and Barletta say they have identities of their own, and plans to distinguish themselves.
Wagner is promising to act swiftly as governor and be accessible, noting that he had recently spent an hour in Philadelphia’s 16th ward discussing crime.
“I’m listening to these people,” Wagner said. “I said, ‘I will never make promises, but I will be here to learn about your struggles.’”
Barletta said he has a strategy to capture moderate voters: his record on transportation, infrastructure and afterschool programs.
“I have a record of my own that I’ll be campaigning on that will resonate in southeastern Pennsylvania and other parts of the state,” Barletta said.