Just hours after the final votes in Pennsylvania’s statewide primaries had been counted, Donald Trump’s Twitter feed lit up. “Congratulations to Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania,” the president wrote on Wednesday morning. “He will be a great Senator and will represent his people well - like they haven’t been represented in many years. Lou is a friend of mine and a special guy, he will very much help MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
Trump, always eyeing 2020, may think so. But it’s becoming clear that the rest of the Republican Party, looking straight at November 2018, is less convinced.
An anti–illegal immigration hard-liner for years before Trump became a national political figure, dating back to his time as the mayor of Hazleton, Barletta has struggled mightily to raise much-needed campaign cash in his bid to unseat Democratic senator Bob Casey. And when it came time for Pennsylvania’s Republicans to vote in the primary this week, this fourth-term congressman with the backing of the president won fewer than two-thirds of the votes in a one-on-one matchup against a long-shot, widely unknown member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
When the fiery Barletta first emerged as the party’s likely standard-bearer there last year, it seemed a clear test of the replicability of Trump’s road map to victory in Pennsylvania, where he was the first GOP presidential candidate to win since 1988. If Barletta could win, that would be a clear sign that Trump might be better positioned to run through Pennsylvania in 2020 than he was even in 2016, when he beat Hillary Clinton there by just 0.7 points. But if Barletta — as close a Trump ally as exists in Congress — couldn’t, it would be an obvious warning sign for the president.
That sign is now flashing.
Whereas Pennsylvania was once viewed as a high-profile Senate battleground in 2018 — one of the ten seats up for grabs featuring a Democratic incumbent in a state Trump won — on Thursday Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declined to even put it in his top tier of interest, in an interview with the Washington Post. He called Barletta and Representative Jim Renacci, his counterpart in Ohio, “credible counterparts that could get onto the radar screen,” but in Pennsylvania’s place he listed states like Arizona and Tennessee, both traditionally conservative states held by retiring Republicans.
It’s an understandable pivot: In Tennessee, which Trump won by 26 points in 2016, his approval rating is at 53 percent — and the Democratic Senate front-runner’s approval rating is still 67 percent, compared to the Republican front-runner’s 49 percent. But Trump’s approval rating in Pennsylvania was down to 30 percent this spring, according to a Franklin & Marshall poll. That won’t help Barletta — who’s relatively unknown back home — in his strategy to hug Trump tight and follow his trail through the state. He appears to be ditching the traditional moderate GOP plan of competing in and around Philadelphia (where Casey is now going for a blowout), and instead aiming to win the northeastern regions that Trump flipped away from Barack Obama.
That means Trump’s 2016, and maybe 2020, plan is, indeed, getting a road test in 2018. And national Republicans are looking away.
It’s simple, say relieved Democrats. “Barletta will get wiped out because he won’t do well in the Philadelphia suburbs, and he won’t do as well as Trump did in other places” either, predicted former Pennsylvania governor and Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell, a Democrat. Without Clinton to beat up on — and thereby no way to dampen voter turnout in the fired-up suburbs — and without a flood of national GOP time, energy, and money to engage Trump’s base, Barletta’s attempt to duplicate Trump’s path through Pennsylvania is just too far-fetched, he said. “It’s not credible at all.”