With Donald Trump out of the White House, Pennsylvania’s Republican Party shows no sign of walking away from a president who lost control of Congress, carried out an unprecedented campaign to overturn an election and is blamed by some in his party for inciting a violent assault on the country’s democracy.
Save for two notable exceptions, Pennsylvania’s top Republican politicians stayed loyal to Trump as he tried to undo his loss to Democrat Joe Biden in the battleground state and refused blame for the siege of the U.S. Capitol.
Republicans say there is no conversation inside the state party about moving away from Trump at a critical juncture: would-be candidates are beginning to jockey for an inside track to the nomination next year for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat and governor’s office.
Trump remains popular among the GOP’s rank-and-file voters in Pennsylvania, even if he lost the state and struggled mightily in the suburbs around Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, party officials say.
“I don’t think you can just walk away from Trump,” said Tom McGarrigle, the GOP chairman in the Philadelphia suburb of Delaware County. “In the western part of the state, they love the guy, so to walk away from Trump, you lose the Trump base and you can’t afford to lose the Trump base.”
Even as many party officials say Trump is blameless in the attack on the U.S. Capitol, some have tried to distance themselves from Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud.
But a Republican candidate for governor or U.S. Senate also would hurt their ability to win the GOP’s endorsement or a nomination by disavowing Trump, party figures say.
It will be important for candidates to follow Trump’s policy platforms, not necessarily his personality, said Sam DeMarco, the Allegheny County GOP chairman.
“If you’re still speaking to the policies that allowed the president to win 74 million votes, you can be very successful. If you’re not following the policies, but just trying to emulate behavior and attitude and things like that, you won’t be because I think people can smell inauthenticity a mile away,” DeMarco said.
Many in Pennsylvania’s Republican ranks stayed loyal to Trump until the end.
More than half of the Republicans in Pennsylvania’s Legislature, including GOP caucus leaders, and eight Republican members of Congress from Pennsylvania tried in various ways to block the state’s electoral votes from going to Biden.
They at times amplified unfounded tales of election fraud and irregularities, while doing little, or nothing, to push back on the baseless claims. They described ballots cast by legal, eligible voters as “illegal ballots.”
The party also joined in. Nearly two weeks after Election Day, the state Republican Party issued a fundraising appeal to “stop Democrats from stealing our election.”
Even after the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, those eight Republican congressmen not only voted against accepting state’s electoral votes for Biden, but also against Trump’s second impeachment.
They received little cover from a couple of Republican colleagues from Pennsylvania: U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick.
Toomey, who is not running again for his seat in 2022, said Biden had won an “honest victory” and that Trump had “committed impeachable offenses” in the siege of the U.S. Capitol.
Fitzpatrick — who nonetheless voted against impeaching Trump — called the siege “nothing short of a coup attempt,” accused Trump of “lying to the American people” and said Trump’s “attempts to undermine the outcome of the 2020 election have been unconscionable.”
There is no visible backlash in the party against figures who stuck with Trump.
Jim Christiana, Beaver County’s GOP chairman, said Trump is a Republican “through and through. He’s given our party new opportunity, and I don’t think the last 20 days of his presidency is going to change that.”
Still, loyalty to Trump should not be a litmus test, either, he said. The party’s nominees for governor and U.S. Senate must be able to win and to address issues facing the state and country, Christiana said.
“If we’re having a serious conversation about what gives our candidates the best opportunity to win, I think it has to be beyond just whether those candidates embraced Donald Trump or rejected Donald Trump,” Christiana said.
For serious candidates to declare their candidacy, the rubber probably meets the road next fall. That, say party officials, is a political lifetime from now, when Trump’s perceived transgressions may be a distant memory and the party is uniting against Biden’s agenda.
Another question is how influential Trump will try to be in nominating contests.
“Trump is going to be bigger than life, there’s no question about that moving forward,” said Rob Gleason, a former state party chairman. “He’s going to be as big as he wants to be.”