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The Strange Post-Trump Politics of the Pennsylvania Republican Primaries

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The Strange Post-Trump Politics of the Pennsylvania Republican Primaries

To pollsters who have tracked the race, Oz’s failure to separate from the field has been tied up in Barnette’s rise. “The largest faction in the Republican primary are the strong Trump voters,” Berwood Yost, who directs the Franklin & Marshall College poll, told me. Although they might have been expected to follow Trump into Oz’s column, “in fact, about half are for Oz and half are for Barnette.” At the May 4th debate, when one of the moderators asked Barnette to address Trump’s endorsement of her opponent, Barnette hinted at a disconnect between the President and his followers, “MAGA does not belong to President Trump,” she said. “Our values never shifted to President Trump’s values. It was President Trump who shifted and aligned with our values.”

Pennsylvania is at once the tipping-point state in American politics—it voted twice for Barack Obama, for Trump in 2016, and then for Biden in 2020, all by very narrow margins—and perhaps the most transformed by the political upheavals of the past decade. The rich suburbs of the four Philadelphia “collar counties,” not long ago the heart of the state’s Republican Party, have swung sharply toward the Democrats, while the post-industrial cities and towns in the state’s interior have evolved from slightly Republican to overwhelmingly Republican. The line of political demarcation between the western Philadelphia suburbs of Chester County and the right-wing countryside, Mastriano’s home base and one part of Republican Pennsylvania that is not poor and not declining, is now among the sharpest in the country.

Early Newspaper

That line also separates the suburban areas where the Republican Party still has organizational infrastructure from those where it has to work through proxies. Barley, the Harrisburg Republican, who was the campaign manager to the last Republican governor of the state, Tom Corbett, told me that, in the collar counties, the local Republican Party is still well funded and still gets its voters to the polls. But, in more rural counties where the Republican vote is growing, Barley went on, the Party organizations are generally pretty weak, in part because of the conservative grass roots’ post-Tea Party antipathy for the Republican establishment, and in part because wealthy donors increasingly invest in individual campaigns rather than in the infrastructure of the Republican Party. To drum up Republican votes in rural Pennsylvania, Barley said, “You’ve gotta find the people who are like the organizers, right? And typically it’s not the Party. It’s the Trump-type patriot groups.”

Another change is that the purported “lanes” of the Republican electorate have lost some salience. Traditionally, candidate preferences among conservatives have been driven by their issue preferences—for instance, whether they identify more strongly with socially conservative positions or economic ones. But, to whatever degree such distinctions once drove the choices of Republican voters, Brock McCleary, a Republican pollster who often works in Pennsylvania, told me, “It is less so now. On the conservative side,” he said, “it orbits around Trump, and it’s not driven by the definition between ‘very conservative’ and ‘somewhat conservative’ or any difference along there.”

In the Pennsylvania Senate race, the establishment resistance to these changes organized itself around the candidacy of David McCormick, who, as a West Pointer, the husband of Powell, and the C.E.O. of the investment behemoth Bridgewater Advisors, was perfectly positioned to organize the Party behind him, or buy what he couldn’t organize. One of his prominent campaign advisers, Kristin Davison, helped the Republican millionaire Glenn Youngkin win the governorship in Virginia last year.

Recently, I caught up with the McCormick campaign at a low-ceilinged American Legion hall in Wilkes-Barre, and, for a minute or two, I could almost see it: a fire-hydrant-shaped man who had once co-captained the wrestling team at West Point, McCormick exuded optimism and energy, and organized his stump speech around reversing Biden’s inflationary economic policies, liberalizing the rules around fracking, and getting tougher on China. As an airborne officer from the first Gulf War, he had some built-in loyalty among the crowd of veterans—“Airborne!” one man shouted, just as McCormick took the stage. But, toward the end, as the businessman tried to pivot to his closing message, a woman spoke up, a little tersely, from the back of the crowd. “What about election integrity?” she asked. “I didn’t hear anything on that.” McCormick, looking eager to please, stepped toward her, and said he favored voter-I.D. laws, but she looked unmoved. She called out, “What about censorship?” She wanted to assess him against the MAGA positions. Watching McCormick try to respond, I thought, Good preacher, wrong congregation.

For half a decade, an unavoidable topic in political conversation has been the way Trump has transformed the Republican Party. The new entity is coarser, more pugnacious, hostile to immigration and overseas business, and open to talking trash about big corporations, if not to raising their taxes. Those changes, and the capitulation of the Republican Party to Trump, have defined conservatism ever since. But the rise of Mastriano and Barnette in the Pennsylvania elections suggests that the dominant faction in Republican politics, the “Trump conservative,” is no longer animated by the fights that the former President picks, or the candidates he champions, so much as by the broader conflicts between secular liberalism and religious conservatism. The energizing campaigns for grassroots conservatives in 2022 have mostly been about strengthening anti-abortion laws and stopping “groomers” in public schools and their abettors in the Democratic Party. The most of-the-moment conservative politicians project fearlessness. “You think Ron DeSantis is good?” Mastriano joked, at a rally he held last weekend. “Amateur.” These campaigns share the Trump style, but they are also more rooted in social conservatism than Trump himself ever was. Among the most interesting questions for Republicans in the coming months will be: How will the emphasis on social conservatism within the grass roots shift the balance of power in the Party, and how effective will Trump be at co-opting it?

Recently, there has been a flurry of Republican activity to keep the nominations from Mastriano’s and Barnette’s reach. The results have been mixed. Sean Hannity, who had endorsed Oz, went after Barnette on his television show, arguing that she “has never been vetted” and reading from past tweets of hers in which she had said Trump’s “moral character is questionable” and had called Barack Obama a Muslim. Meanwhile, the Club for Growth, seemingly out to defeat Oz and Trump above all else, suddenly endorsed Barnette, and bought two million dollars’ worth of ads to support her. It was easy enough to see the evidence of panic, but near impossible to see anything like effective coördination.

A Party establishment that has gone so far to appease Trump now lacks both a way to appeal to Trump conservatives and a credible alternative vision. “Mastriano is going to get every single election-denier vote,” Ryan Costello, a former Republican congressman from Chester County, said. “If that’s your issue, he’s the only candidate who has said the exact things you think and feel.” Barnette, he added, held a similar position in the Senate race. But Costello, who has criticized the Party’s transformation under Trump, also thought that the McCormick campaign had made a strategic mistake in courting Trump’s inner circle and chasing a Trump endorsement. “I would make the argument that McCormick would be in a stronger position if he had not chosen to play in the Trump sweepstakes,” Costello said. “He was trying to say to the Republican electorate, ‘Hey, I’m the Trump Republican, not Oz.’ ” I asked Costello, who is forty-five and had been widely discussed as a potential candidate for Senate or governor, whether there was still a path for an anti-Trump Republican. “When I looked at the race, that was my thesis,” Costello said. “And I think it will hold true.” But it was hard to ignore that Costello, as well positioned as anyone in Pennsylvania’s Republican Party, had decided not to run in 2022.

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The Strange Post-Trump Politics of the Pennsylvania Republican Primaries