Trump gives Barletta edge in crowded Pa. primary

Trump gives Barletta edge in crowded Pa. primary
© Greg Nash

Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Lou BarlettaLouis (Lou) James BarlettaDems look to use Moore against GOP Democrats expand House map after election victories GOP Senate hopefuls reluctant to back McConnell as leader MORE is seen as the leading GOP candidate to take on Sen. Bob CaseyRobert (Bob) Patrick CaseyThe Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Dems look to use Moore against GOP MORE Jr. (D), with his chances boosted further after a de facto endorsement from President Trump last week.

During a Harrisburg, Pa., rally last Wednesday, Trump lauded the congressman as a “great guy” who will “win big.” Trump then repeated the praise during an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Trump’s praise will give Barletta, an early Trump endorser during the presidential race and a key campaign surrogate, a major bump in a crowded primary field that also includes wealthy real estate developer Jeff Bartos.

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Most Pennsylvania observers see Barletta as the clear favorite for the GOP primary, despite Bartos’s financial advantage. But while Barletta’s closeness to Trump will help mobilize Republican voters in a state that Trump won by only 1 percentage point in November, Barletta’s Trump ties could also hurt his ability to broaden his reach beyond the GOP grass roots in the general election. 

“Midterm elections are essentially, in modern history, a referendum on the president,” said Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Lancaster’s Franklin & Marshall College.

Madonna considers Barletta the “heavy favorite” to win the primary, but predicts he’ll face a tough general election against Casey. 

“Here, we have a quintessential referendum on Trump for the simple reason that it’s hard to find another challenger to a sitting incumbent who is more Trump-like,” Madonna said.

Trump’s comments have created more momentum for Barletta, who shook up the field when he jumped into the race in late August.

Barletta first made his name with immigration hard-liners as the mayor of Hazleton, Pa., where he pushed a series of measures aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. He’s since made immigration a signature issue in Congress, raising his profile as one of Trump’s top surrogates in Pennsylvania.

Since Trump took office, Barletta has met with the president a handful of times. He rode on Air Force One to the Harrisburg rally where Trump lauded his Senate bid. 

“I know what my relationship is like with the president and how hard I’m working to make sure his agenda gets passed here,” Barletta told The Hill. 

“That’s what the people back home want — they want the agenda of the person they voted for, the president, to succeed,” he added.

While the primary is crowded, with a field that also includes Trump critic Paul Addis, state Rep. Jim Christiana and Trump supporter Bobby Lawrence — Bartos is believed to be the only candidate with a chance of beating Barletta. 

Bartos loaned himself $500,000 in the first six months of 2017. Bartos’s fundraising numbers from the third quarter will post in the coming days, but he told The Hill that he expects to hold pace in terms of individual donors with Barletta, who finished the third quarter with $1 million cash on hand.

Christiana is far behind both Bartos and Barletta, raising $112,000 and with $73,000 cash on hand, according to a local news report.

Bartos has drawn battle lines with Barletta in the hopes of framing the race as a contrast between an outsider with fresh ideas and a career politician, using Barletta’s face in a campaign ad alongside Casey’s as examples of “career politicians [who] fail to deliver.” 

Bartos told The Hill that he believes that Barletta is a “good man who has been a good congressman,” but that Washington needs an outside perspective. Admitting it’s “not a perfect analogue by any stretch,” he noted how anti-establishment sentiment helped former Alabama supreme court judge Roy Moore win September’s GOP Senate primary runoff against an incumbent. 

“We will be drawing a strong contrast as an outsider, a conservative businessman who believes in term limits very strongly,” Bartos said. 

“That’s a very strong contrast to a sitting member of Congress ... but it’s not a contrast of character. It’s a situational contrast, a contrast of perspective,” he said.

Bartos’s best asset is his campaign fund, according to Madonna, since it could help him blast his message across the state. 

“If he can plop $1.5 million or $2 million down with a brilliant introductory commercial, you can’t rule out that he’ll make the race more competitive,” the professor said, noting the success that future-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf had in 2014 by self-funding much of his campaign.

“But there are a lot of ‘ifs’ there,” Madonna added. 

Whoever wins the Republican nomination will face a tough general election against Casey, a member of a prominent Pennsylvania family who has served in the Senate since 2007.

Casey is a strong fundraiser whose third quarter report shows that he raised $2.2 million and has $7 million in his campaign account.

Both sides will likely spend huge amounts of money on the race — Pennsylvania’s 2016 Senate race cost more than $164 million — but Casey starts with a major fundraising edge. 

Democrats are already tarring Barletta as a rubber stamp for Trump, while hoping that a drawn-out primary hurts whichever candidate wins the GOP nomination.

Barletta has responded by blasting Casey as an impediment to Trump, accusing Casey of turning to the left and arguing that he can’t represent Trump voters.

“Bob Casey is doing everything to stand in the way of President Trump’s agenda, which the people of Pennsylvania voted for,” Barletta said. “I do believe that he has moved very far left and no longer represents the values of Pennsylvania workers and Pennsylvania families.”

Casey has previously outperformed the Democratic presidential ticket in areas of the state that Trump won, and Pennsylvania Democrats point to the senator’s messaging on the economy that they believe could resonate with Trump voters.

“The Casey brand has always been an economic message that’s been very receptive by middle class and working class families in Pennsylvania,” said Larry Ceisler, a Pennsylvania Democratic strategist. “Casey already has that message down pat.”

Trump’s praise for Barletta will help distinguish him from the rest of the GOP primary field. But the impact the president’s backing will have for Barletta in the general election is less clear.

A recent Susquehanna Polling and Research survey found that only 27 percent of registered Pennsylvania voters think Casey deserves a third term. But Trump has similarly grim numbers in the state, with Madonna’s polling finding that just 29 percent of registered voters rate his job performance as “excellent” or “good.”

And Trump’s job performance rating has slipped 14 percentage points among Republicans in the state in the past four months, to just 53 percent. 

“Whether Lou Barletta agreed with the president of the United States 100 percent of the time or zero percent of the time, they’d paint him as the best friend of the president regardless,” said Vincent Galko, Barletta’s former campaign manager. “You have to use it to your advantage where you can, and in an election like this, it’s helping to energize the grass roots and the base.”