With three months until midterm elections, Republican Congressman and U.S. Senate hopeful Lou Barletta has found himself trailing his incumbent opponent–both in polls and in dollars.
Now, midstate representative is leaning into one resource he can count on: The support of President Donald Trump.
On Thursday night, Trump rolled through northeast Pennsylvania to lend his voice to the cause.
As an ebullient crowd packed into Wilkes-Barre’s Mohegan Sun arena ahead of the rally, “Macho Man” by the Village People blasted over the loudspeaker.
It may as well have been a mission statement for the event–full of muscular, hopeful proclamations on the state of Lou Barletta’s Senate candidacy.
But outside the Luzerne County arena, not everyone has been so bullish on Barletta.
Asked in May to list the GOP’s highest-priority Senate races, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t name Pennsylvania.
On average, polls show Barletta trailing two-term Democrat Bob Casey by about 16 points.
Barletta’s campaign knows this. And the candidate himself recently acknowledged as much to reporters in Harrisburg.
“Listen, I won’t ever have as much money as Senator Casey,” Barletta said in June. “But I won’t need as much.”
Casey campaign spokesman Max Steele said that’s fine by him.
“I mean, I’m happy if he thinks he doesn’t need to raise money,” he said. “More power to him.”
Steele has spent a lot of time thinking about weak spots in Barletta’s campaign. And he said the Republican’s inability to get major leadership PACs like McConnell’s on board is a boon to Casey.
President Donald Trump departs from a campaign rally, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
“[Barletta] is in a tough spot, and it’s hard to break out because if you don’t have a huge fundraising quarter and can’t show that you’re worthy for these national donors that you need, they’re not going to help, which keeps you from having good fundraising quarters,” he said. “It’s a little bit of a vicious cycle.”
That is where the president comes into Barletta’s strategy.
The Luzerne County Congressman has campaigned on Trump’s behalf since the very first days of his presidential bid. Barletta was one of the first members to endorse Trump and has said Trump was the one who urged him to run for the Senate in the first place. Their fortunes seem tied together.
State GOP Chair Val DiGiorgio said he’s hoping that’s a good thing.
“Look, [Trump’s message] plays very well in [the northeast] part of the state,” he said. “Ultimately we think it’ll play well everywhere if we get the message out.”
“Lou’s got to create his own brand,” he added. “It’s up to him to create his own brand.”
DiGiorgio acknowledged, they’ve been working to create that brand largely without the help of the national GOP or outside funders.
“Whether that’s a detriment or not, I don’t know. I haven’t won races locally and in Pennsylvania based on the folks in Washington. We’re going to win this here in Pennsylvania,” he said.
Barletta’s strong name recognition in the northeast is thanks to his long history in the area and the decade he spent as Hazelton mayor.
But a June poll from Franklin and Marshall College showed that statewide, 66 percent of voters say they don’t know enough about Barletta to have an opinion on him.
Bob Casey, in contrast, is a fixture.
His father, Bob Casey Sr., was governor. Casey himself was Auditor General, ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor, and was elected state Treasurer before entering the Senate in 2007.
Only 29 percent of voters say they don’t know much about him. The very arena where Trump campaigned on Barletta’s behalf is in Casey Plaza, named for the late governor.
At the rally, Trump indirectly referenced Barletta’s struggle to establish himself statewide–telling the crowd that “People are just starting to know him. But I’ve known him for a long time, and you know when he wants something for Pennsylvania he is brutal.”
And likewise, he put down Casey as forgettable–christening him with the nickname “Sleepin’ Bob.”
“I don’t know this man,” he said of the Scranton-based senator. “He’s a senator, there are a hundred senators, I don’t know him.”
Now, it’s up to Barletta to harness that support from the president and make up ground across the state–even in areas like the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs where Trump’s not that popular.
Many of the Wilkes-Barre rally-goers, like Scranton bar owner Kirk Space, said they believe that should be no problem.
“Trump gets back behind anything and it goes boom. I think Lou’s gonna do fine,” he said.
DiGiorgio is more cautious.
“We’re going to test it. We’re going to see what that popularity is,” he said. “If you can get, in this part of the state and the Southwest, that 65-70 percent number that the president was getting–and I think Lou can get it–then you’ll have victory.”
He said preliminary numbers for this fundraising quarter are looking good. He’s hopeful.
“What happened tonight gives him a big boost,” DiGiorgio said. “There was a fundraiser before this. It probably raised in the neighborhood of a million dollars.”
“And you saw the online donations that they received tonight,” added state GOP Spokesman Jason Gottesman. “They received a lot of donations from around the state, and across the country too.”
Barletta and Casey will face off in the midterm election on November 6th.