Republican officials in Pennsylvania are fretting that Rep. Lou Barletta’s anemic fundraising and strategic misfires are jeopardizing the party’s opportunity to pick off a winnable Senate seat in the midterm elections in a state President Trump captured 14 months ago.
Barletta’s fourth quarter report is expected show around just $550,000 raised, Republican sources say. That’s a paltry figure for a candidate in a high profile contest — especially after Trump personally recruited Barletta and anointed him the frontrunner for the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic Sen. Bob Casey.
In an email exchange obtained by the Washington Examiner, two senior Republican members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives vented frustrations about Barletta and discussed their preference for long-shot GOP Senate candidate Jim Christiana.
The lawmakers — state Rep. Mark Mustio, from suburban Pittsburgh district and chairman of the Republican state house campaign committee, and state Rep. John Taylor, representing suburban Philadelphia since 1985 — worried Barletta’s strategy could sink the GOP in Southeastern Pennsylvania and jeopardize their power in Harrisburg.
Barletta, an immigration hawk, is borrowing heavily from Trump’s 2016 playbook that played up cultural divisions, rather than Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s 2016 campaign of conservative inclusiveness. Mustio and Taylor are concerned Barletta’s approach could backfire, particularly in the Trump-skeptical suburbs, in a midterm shaping up as a referendum on Trump’s polarizing leadership.
“I am concerned that Lou Barletta's candidacy, with the media emphasis on immigration and the President, may cause each of our House seats to be a referendum on the President as well. Our message, from the top to the bottom of the ticket, will be lost and it could be a straight party vote against us in the Southeast,” Taylor said in his email to Mustio.
“I’m also concerned about the possibility of the 2018 election becoming more of a referendum on Donald Trump than on his policies of economic growth and a strong foreign policy that work for all of us,” Mustio responded. “The U.S. Senate race especially threatens to become a Washington, D.C. led effort that ignores the political realities here in Pennsylvania. We can’t afford that!”
Mustio and Taylor, in supporting Christiana over Barletta, are hardly neutral observers. But the lawmakers’ bravado in ignoring Trump’s preference in the Senate race after he became the first Republican presidential nominee to win the commonwealth in decades is significant.
It’s indicative of widespread anxiety among Pennsylvania Republicans that Barletta is headed toward defeat, and could take the down-ticket with him. Half-dozen Republican insiders in Pennsylvania, most requesting anonymity in order to speak candidly, echoed in some fashion or another the complaints of Mustio and Taylor.
The Barletta campaign countered that the congressman was on track to oust Casey, the son of a beloved former governor who is seeking his third term.
“Lou Barletta has been uniting the Republican Party behind his candidacy and positioning himself to defeat Senator Casey in November,” Barletta deputy campaign manager Jon Anzur said in an emailed statement.
“In just four months as a Senate candidate,” Anzur added, “Lou has raised $1 million and is continuing to ramp up his fundraising. Senator Casey, by contrast, has been named one of the most vulnerable senators running this year, which comes as no surprise given that Casey has to defend voting against tax cuts for Pennsylvanians and voting to shut down the government to put illegal immigrants over Americans.”
Republican political operatives say the Senate race is a legitimate opportunity for the GOP to pad its 51-49 majority in Washington, despite a tough environment and the challenges that historically hamper the party in power in the White House in the midterm.
Trump in 2016 won the support of many traditionally Democratic voters in central and western Pennsylvania who were attracted to the his populism and repelled by their old party’s leftward lurch. Casey, who won his first term in 2006 as a compartively conservative Democrat, has since drifted left, becoming an ardent liberal on key issues.
But to capitalize, Barletta needs to raise more money. He closed the third quarter, at the end of September, with a little under $1 million in the bank, compared to Casey’s whopping $7 million. Casey told reporters this week that he is "ready for this fight in 2018." Barletta had only been in the race since August, but the fourth-term congressman’s lackluster fundraising during the final three months of 2017 isn’t going to help calm any nerves.
Some Republican insiders say Barletta, never a prodigious fundraiser, hasn’t put in the work. Other Republicans say Barletta is mistakenly relying on Trump for cash. According to knowledgeable sources, Barletta took the president too literally when he wooed the congressman to run for Senate by committing to raise him millions from his loyal supporters.
“Sometimes, it takes time to build up relationships with donors in statewide races, particularly when challenging incumbents,” Josh Novotney, a Republican lobbyist based in Philadelphia, said. “From my understanding, he’s been working it even though it doesn’t look like it has completely materialized yet in the last fundraising period.”
A second Republican operative from Pennsylvania, granted anonymity, was less charitable.
“He’s looked at this thing pretty naively. Lou’s is not known as the hardest worker in the world and has never been a prolific fundraiser. He thought that simply by branding himself with Trump, it would mean tons of cash. That’s not been the case,” this Republican said.
With Trump's backing, Barletta is basically being treated as the presumptive nominee. The state party, and county party organizations, are throwing the congressman their support, either directly or indirectly. Barletta has racked up straw poll victories and party events, and it doesn't appear as though Christiana, or any other underdog, can stop him.
Though Barletta might never be a great fundraiser, his strength is with the grassroots. The congressman made a name for himself years ago as a mayor who took a hard line against illegal immigration in his town, and that reputation, and Trump's endorsement, positions him to build a campaign and rally grassroots conservatives similar to what fueled the president's success in 2016.
Barletta's critics agree, with some even encouraging this approach to the race because it would be more natural for him than trying to run as a Toomey-oriented pragmatist to appeal to suburban voters. But, as with fundraising, they would like to see him show more of an effort.
"He has not done a terrific job on that front, which should be the easier of the two," a Republican insider in Pennsylvania said.