Why Pennsylvania Republican leaders are all-in for Trump more than ever

By Trip Gabriel

As a second impeachment trial for Donald Trump approaches next month, Republicans in states across the country are lining up behind the former president with unwavering support.

Perhaps no state has demonstrated its fealty as tenaciously as Pennsylvania, where Republican officials have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep Trumpism at the center of their message as they bolster the president’s false claims of a “stolen” election.

Eight of nine Republicans in Pennsylvania’s congressional delegation voted to throw out their state’s own electoral votes for President Joe Biden on Jan. 6, just hours after a mob had stormed the Capitol.

A majority of Republicans in the state Legislature had endorsed that effort.

And one House member from the state, Scott Perry, was instrumental in promoting a plan in which Trump would fire the acting attorney general in an effort to stay in office.

In the weeks since the Nov. 3 election, Republicans in Pennsylvania have made loyalty to the defeated ex-president the sole organizing principle of the party, the latest chapter in a rightward populist march repeated across other states. As elsewhere, the Pennsylvania GOP was once led by mainstream conservatives, but it is now defined almost exclusively by Trumpism. It faces major statewide races in 2022, for offices including governor and the Senate, with an electorate that just rejected Trump in favor of Biden.

Far from engaging in self-examination, Pennsylvania Republicans are already jockeying before the 2022 primaries to prove that they fought the hardest for Trump, who, in spite of the losses by his party in the White House, the Senate and the House, still exerts a strong grip over elected Republicans and grassroots voters.

As the Republican base has shifted — suburbanites leaning more Democratic and rural white voters lining up behind Republicans over culture-war issues — GOP leaders recognize the extent to which the former president unleashed waves of support for their party. In Pennsylvania, just as in some Midwestern states, a surge of new Republican voters with grievances about a changing America was triggered by Trump, and only Trump.

“Donald Trump’s presidency and his popularity has been a big win for the Republican Party of Pennsylvania,” said Rob Gleason, a former chair of the state GOP. Even though numerous state and federal courts rejected the Trump campaign’s baseless claims of voter fraud, Gleason said the belief that the voting was rigged “lingers in the minds of a lot of people.”

He predicted it would drive Republican turnout in upcoming races. He said he had met this week with a prosecutor who “feels the election was stolen” and was pondering a run for a statewide judgeship this year.

Other Republicans are more skeptical that lock-step support of the former president is the best path forward in Pennsylvania, a critical battleground state that is likely to be up for grabs in the next several election cycles.

“We have become, over four years, the party of Trump, and it has been one test after the other,” said Ryan Costello, a former GOP House member from the Philadelphia suburbs who has been critical of Trump and is exploring a run for Senate. “It is not a sustainable growth strategy to double and triple and quadruple down on Trump when he gets divisive.”

Despite Costello’s apprehension, most Republicans thought to be mulling runs for Senate or governor have made it clear that they are prepared to pass a Trump loyalty test.

They include members of the Republican congressional delegation, hard-line members of the Legislature, and even Donald Trump Jr. The president’s oldest son is the subject of persistent rumors that he will run for high office in the state — mostly because of his ties to Pennsylvania, where he went to prep school and college. The Trump family spent an enormous amount of time campaigning in Pennsylvania in 2020, and as it seeks its next political stage, the state remains a big one.

Apart from the House delegation, much of the Trumpist takeover in Pennsylvania has occurred in the Legislature, where Republicans held their majorities in both chambers in November (a result that the party fails to mention in its vehement claims of election fraud in the presidential race).

In contrast to states such as Georgia and Arizona, where top Republican officials debunked disinformation from Trump and his allies, in Pennsylvania no senior Republicans in Harrisburg pushed back on false claims about election results, some of them created by lawmakers themselves or by Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

A majority of Republicans in the General Assembly urged the state’s congressional delegation in December to reject the state’s 20 electoral votes for Biden after the results were legally certified. Such was the pressure from grassroots Trump supporters that the majority leader of the state Senate, Kim Ward, said in an interview last month that if she refused to sign on to such an effort, “I’d get my house bombed tonight.”

Republicans in the state House are seeking to change how judges are elected to ensure a Republican majority on the state Supreme Court, after the current court, with a Democratic lean, ruled against claims in election fraud cases last year.

Republican lawmakers have also plunged into a lengthy examination of the November election, even though no evidence of more than trivial fraud has surfaced, and courts rejected claims that election officials overstepped their legal mandates.

Republicans announced 14 hearings in the House. Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, a Democrat, was grilled in the first one last week. Dismissing the series of hearings as a “charade,” she called on Republicans not to sow further distrust in the integrity of the state’s election, which drew a record 71% turnout despite a pandemic.

“We need to stand together as Americans,” Boockvar said in an interview, “and tell the voters these were lies, that your votes counted, they were checked, they were audited, they were recounted many places, and the numbers added up and they were certified.”

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