Amid all the hubbub trained on him the last couple of weeks, U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta’s campaign for the Senate still seems poised to easily win the state Republican Party’s endorsement.
Barletta has 189 of the 222 votes cast so far by the northeast, northeast-central, central and southeast Republican caucuses. The southwest and northwest caucuses vote Saturday.
The state party committee meets Feb. 10 to endorse candidates. The winner of the May 15 Republican primary election will likely face Sen. Bob Casey, the two-term incumbent Democrat and top Pennsylvania political brand name.
The hubbub centered on an email exchange between two retiring Republican state representatives who’ve endorsed one of Barletta’s prospective opponents, a CNN story on the former Hazleton mayor’s relationships with racist groups and his still underwhelming fundraising.
Let’s start with the memo authored and signed by Rep. John Taylor, R-177, Philadelphia, and Rep. Mark Mustio, R-44-Allegheny. Someone leaked it to the media and The Washington Examiner, the Morning Call of Allentown and PoliticsPA wrote about it first.
I got it, too, and I’ll try to add some context here.
First, Taylor and Mustio’s have endorsed Rep. Jim Christiana, R-15, Beaver, for the Senate seat. Christiana looks like the only one with a chance to stop Barletta from getting the nomination now.
“I am concerned that Lou Barletta’s candidacy, with the media emphasis on immigration and the President (Donald Trump), may cause each of our House seats to be a referendum on the President as well. Our message, from the top to the bottom of the ticket, will be lost and it could be a straight party vote against up in the Southeast,” Taylor wrote to Mustio.
Taylor pointed out Trump didn’t do well in the southeast.
“All five of the counties in the Southeast were rocked in the election last November (2016). While results in Philadelphia were not surprising, the outcomes in Chester, Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery certainly were,” Taylor wrote. “We lost seats we have held for generations.”
Mustio echoed that.
“I’m also concerned about the possibility of the 2018 election becoming more of a referendum on Donald Trump than on his policies of economic growth and a strong foreign policy that work for all of us,” Mustio wrote.
Barletta’s campaign fell back on all his caucus votes, including 62 of 78 from the southeast caucus.
Last Thursday, CNN published a story that talked about racist, Holocaust-denying groups that Barletta has hung around with now and then since he began his crusade against illegal immigration. I’ve had a Hazleton Latino leader tell me Barletta is no racist, but Barletta has long walked a fine line in his fight against illegal immigration because it inspires all these fringe groups.
“As mayor, Barletta did an interview with a fringe publication that promotes Holocaust denial and headlined a rally where a political activist and musician who has questioned the Holocaust and promoted conspiracies about the September 11, 2001 attacks also spoke and performed,” the CNN story reported. “As a congressman, Barletta appeared on a panel put on by the controversial Youth for Western Civilization and spoke at an event hosted by a journal that pushes extreme anti-immigrant views.”
Jon Anzur, Barletta’s campaign spokesman, blamed Casey and the Democratic National Committee for the story, calling them “politically motivated attacks … as baseless as they are outrageous.”
“Lou Barletta has always stood up for racial equality and continues to condemn hate, bigotry, and racism in all its forms. Of course Lou was not aware of these individuals’ backgrounds,” Anzur said in an email. “When Lou was mayor, he spoke with people from all over the world who came to Hazleton to report on what was happening. This was a global story. As the mayor of a small city, Lou didn’t have the resources or staff to screen everyone who asked him questions. On the first day the story broke, Lou did 27 interviews, from World News Tonight to Tucker Carlson. Lou had one assistant, not a team of consultants. He did interviews, not background checks. It would have been impossible to screen every group or reporter who asked him questions. He was defending the people he represented, and that meant if you asked him a tough question, he answered it.”
When the KKK wanted to demonstrate in Hazleton, Barletta chased them away.
“Lou said the KKK eats off the bottom of the aquarium, and he was threatened because of it. But he never backed down from these hate groups. Unlike CNN, which has repeatedly given David Duke a platform to spread his hateful message, Lou said no,” Anzur said. “Lou denounced David Duke and rejected his endorsement. Anyone who knows Lou and his family knows this attack is absurd.”
Given the timing, it is not out of the question that some Republicans worried about Barletta’s candidacy had something to do with the CNN story.
Either way, you can bet Democrats circulate the story in the right precincts as the Nov. 6 election approaches.
Barletta’s illegal immigration stance could hurt him in the southeast, assuming the Democrats can get President Barack Obama’s coalition of minority voters and their traditional white voters out to vote in a non-presidential election year.
What the congressman should worry most about, for now anyway, is his fundraising. We won’t know for sure until the Federal Election Commission posts his campaign finance report (it’s due Wednesday), but the Barletta camp says he started the year with more than $1 million cash on hand.
That’s not a lot especially when Casey’s camp says he had $8.6 million.
Barletta’s team points to Democrat Katie McGinty’s similar fundraising at the end of 2015.
“Hopefully, that’s where the similarities end!” Anzur wrote in an email to me a couple of weeks back.
You better hope, Jon.
McGinty, a Democrat, lost, of course, though not because she lacked money. Her race against Republican Sen. Pat Toomey wound up the most expensive in history as outside groups’ money poured in from both sides.
Barletta should worry about money because the Pennsylvania Senate race isn’t guaranteed to stay up there with the most competitive in the country. With so many other competitive Senate races, Barletta has to do better.
It will help to have Trump in his corner raising money, but a lot depends on the way voters see the president later this year.
Trump’s approval numbers stink, but the economy keeps surging.
By November, voters could see the president a whole lot differently than now, and that could mean trouble for Casey.