HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — With Pennsylvania's wide-open races for governor and U.S. Senate taking shape, Republican candidates with strong ties to Donald Trump are running and considered strong contenders for the party's nominations — a powerful sign of the former president's enduring popularity within the GOP.
Within a few days of each other, Sean Parnell entered the race for U.S. Senate and Lou Barletta entered the race for governor. Trump had urged both men to run in prior bids for public office.
Barletta explained the calculus for running under the Republican banner.
"Donald Trump is still the leader of the Republican Party and anybody who believes otherwise, they don't know what they're talking about, and especially in Pennsylvania," Barletta told former Trump adviser Steve Bannon on Bannon's podcast, "War Room."
Parnell and Barletta have ties to Trump that go deep.
Barletta was co-chair of Trump's 2016 presidential campaign in Pennsylvania and a loyal ally on Capitol Hill when he was in Congress. He was Trump's endorsed candidate for U.S. Senate in 2018 and watched the Super Bowl that year with the then-president. He was one of Trump's hand-picked presidential electors in Pennsylvania last year and has hired veterans of Trump's campaign to run his own.
Parnell, a regular guest on Fox News programs, got numerous Twitter and campaign stump shoutouts from Trump to boost his unsuccessful bid for U.S. House last year and landed a coveted speaking slot at the Republican National Convention.
Parnell counts Donald Trump Jr. as a friend and drew his praise on Twitter the day he announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate.
If Trump is toxic for Republicans, as some in the party believe, it isn't showing, even after Trump's long and baseless campaign to discredit his 2020 election loss as a fraud and his role in whipping up supporters before they attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in a stunning attempt to overturn the presidential election.
Republican voters seem unaffected in their support for Trump-backed candidates, said Jim Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling and Research, whose polls include voter surveys and polls for Republican candidates.
But Lee also described opposition among independent voters to Trump-aligned candidates as a "brick wall with a couple of layers of thickness to it."
"What's an asset in a primary could potentially be a liability in the fall," Lee said.
It was no mistake, perhaps, that the first attack Parnell faced from GOP rival Jeff Bartos was to try to fray his ties to Trump.
The Bartos campaign quickly spooled out a Parnell missive on Twitter from 2016, when he criticized Trump's refusal to release his taxes. Parnell had campaigned for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida in the presidential primary that year, but his criticism didn't stop when Rubio dropped out.
For instance, Parnell retweeted a headline saying Trump wouldn't disavow support from David Duke or the KKK. Parnell commented, "I suppose I should be surprised but I'm not." In another, he criticized Trump's embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
"I'm a guy that I call it like I see it," Parnell said in an interview about his criticism of Trump back then. "You know, I do everything I can to call balls and strikes. I stand up to my party when I think that they're wrong. And I'm not afraid to stand up for what I believe."
Trump's policies, by and large, were good for the country, Parnell said, and he grew to support what Trump represented after he saw Trump's popularity in Pennsylvania that year.
Parnell and Barletta both say they want Trump's endorsement, but aren't necessarily making their campaigns strictly about Trump: Their introductory campaign videos never mention him.
Meanwhile, state Sen. Doug Mastriano — who has all but declared his candidacy for governor — is dangling himself as Trump's preferred candidate.
A Trump adviser has stressed that Trump has made no endorsement. Some Republican Party officials doubt Trump will make an endorsement in a contested primary if it isn't clear who will ultimately win it.
No politician wants to back a loser, they say.
An endorsement-free primary might be fine for Republican candidates who hope to capitalize in areas where Trump is less popular.
In southeastern Pennsylvania, a critical mass of Republicans voted against Trump, helping Joe Biden to victory in November.
"In southeastern Pennsylvania, Donald Trump's endorsement would probably hurt a candidate as much as help them," said Jackie Kulback, chair of the Cambria County GOP. "I mean, Pennsylvania is like two different worlds."
Another headache for Republicans is getting many of Trump's voters to vote in elections when Trump isn't on the ballot.
That is a worry in 2022, and even party officials who support Trump acknowledge that attracting Pennsylvania's moderate voters will be critical to general election victories.
"You can be the meanest, most hardcore, go-get-'em Make America Great Again, radical Republican, and you can win a primary," said Dave Ball, Washington County's GOP chair. "But you can't win a general election because you can't pull in the center...I don't care how you cut it. You need votes."
(Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
for more features.