Analysis: Is GOP love for Trump cooling off in Pennsylvania?

Jonathan Tamari
The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — When Donald Trump scored a surprise upset in Pennsylvania in 2016, he thrilled Republicans, who saw the state go red in a presidential race for the first time in 28 years.

But they’ve been chasing that same high ever since, with only setbacks to show for it.

Pennsylvania Republicans molded in Trump’s image got routed in 2018’s Senate and gubernatorial races. Trump lost the state — and presidency — in 2020 while other, less Trump-affiliated Republicans won. And last week brought perhaps the most crushing defeat, as the GOP lost every major race in Pennsylvania, despite an unpopular President Joe Biden widely blamed for inflation.

Six years from that 2016 victory, GOP opinions on Trump are decidedly more mixed as he launches another run for the presidency.

He may be at his weakest point within the Pennsylvania GOP — but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s weak — or beatable.

How Trump won

When Trump won in 2016, he did it in large part by changing the entire game.

His candidacy flipped longtime Democratic strongholds into the Republican column by appealing to white, working-class voters who felt Democrats had let them down and who often held culturally conservative views. He turned out unheard of numbers of Republican votes in rural areas, overcoming steep losses in the state’s big cities and suburbs.

It helped that Trump was facing a historically unpopular rival, Hillary Clinton. But after that narrow win, no Republican has been able to repeat Trump’s path to victory, not even Trump himself in his reelection bid. Instead, Trump and his imitators have repelled swing voters in the populous suburbs and motivated Democratic base voters in cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

Trump’s strategy for Pennsylvania has worked exactly once. Yet he seems ready to give it another shot.

Are Pa. Republicans breaking with Trump?

After the party’s latest losses, many top Republicans blamed Trump and urged the GOP to break from his influence for its own sake.

Some party officials and those affiliated with the business-oriented wing of the party pointed to his support for flawed nominees who lost key elections, and to Trump’s rallies, which drew attention to himself and away from Biden. Democrats wanted to cast the election as a choice between themselves and Trump, and the former president obliged.

“Donald Trump is clearly the best asset for the Democrat party,” said Matthew Brouillette, the head of the Commonwealth Partners, which supports business interests and conservative candidates in Pennsylvania. “As long as Republicans allow him to be their leader, they better get used to losing.”

A number of other state Republicans, including Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., echoed that sentiment, saying the party needs candidates who can appeal to more moderate voters, especially those in the vote-rich suburbs.

Even in rural, deep-red Cambria County, GOP chair Jackie Kulback pointed to the limits of another Trump campaign.

“I do not know of a single person who doesn’t have an opinion on President Trump, good or bad,” she said. “They’ve locked into that, and there’s no changing their minds. They either love him or hate him, seriously, no in between.”

Trump’s lasting power

But even Trump’s critics acknowledge he has lasting power within the GOP.

Toomey, while predicting Trump’s influence would wane, also said the former president begins as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

Rob Gleason, a former GOP state chair, pointed to the 42% of the vote Doug Mastriano just got while running for governor, without almost any money for advertising or outreach to swing voters. That’s Trump’s bare-minimum baseline, Gleason said. It might not be enough to win statewide, but it’s certainly enough to dominate in a GOP primary.

“He’s clearly still the leader of the Republican Party,” said Bill Bretz, the GOP chair in Westmoreland County.

Jim Worthington, a vocal Trump supporter from Bucks County, said only party “elites” are blaming the former president.

“The people love him, the middle class, the blue-collar worker, the people that he championed, absolutely love him and are going to want him to run,” Worthington said.

Even some Democrats are wary of counting Trump out, noting how he surprised everyone in 2016, and came within 1 percentage point of winning Pennsylvania again in 2020.

“Republicans consistently lost presidential campaigns in Pennsylvania starting in 1992 but in the Trump era, they won one and barely lost the second,” cautioned J.J. Balaban, a Democratic strategist from Philadelphia.

Are there alternatives?

Republicans have hoped to rid themselves of Trump before, only to stand down when he withstood the controversies of any given moment.

There’s one potential difference this time: Now Republicans can point to the party’s repeated losses under Trump to argue they need different leadership.

Toomey and several other Republicans pointed to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who won big on Election Day while Republicans struggled elsewhere. Toomey called DeSantis a “dream” for the GOP who has Trump’s strengths without “the baggage.”

DeSantis showed “you can be a strong conservative and yet have appeal to the center with good governance,” said Andy Reilly, Pennsylvania’s national Republican committeeman.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has hinted at another run for president, blistering Trump as a loser who has dragged down the GOP (despite having supported Trump in 2016), and other potential contenders are emerging too.

“The only winning that has been done since Donald Trump has been president is for Donald Trump,” Christie said after the midterm elections.

But only one of them has actually won Pennsylvania before. Whatever gripes some in the GOP have now, Trump is the party’s biggest force until someone proves otherwise.