PHILADELPHIA — A GOP implosion in Pennsylvania has Republicans alarmed about President Donald Trump’s reelection prospects in a state that proved essential to his 2016 victory.
The enfeebled state party — still reeling after a devastating midterm election where Republicans lost three congressional seats and whiffed gubernatorial and Senate races by double digits — is tangled in a power struggle messy enough to capture the attention of the White House.
Story Continued Below
The chaos threatens the president’s chances in a state where there’s no room for error. Trump, the first Republican presidential nominee to carry the state since 1988, won by less than a percentage point.
“He has to win Pennsylvania in order to win the presidency,” said Republican Rep. Ryan Costello, a one-time rising star from the Philadelphia suburbs who is retiring from Congress after just two terms. “And I don’t think he’s the favorite to win against a generic Democrat.”
Since Trump’s stunning 2016 win, Pennsylvania Republicans have gotten almost exclusively bad news. First, Democrats in the Philadelphia suburbs flipped seats in 2017 local elections for the first time in decades — and in some cases, in history. Then came an election year from hell, beginning with Democrat Conor Lamb’s House special election victory smack dab in the middle of western Pennsylvania’s Trump Country.
A #MeToo scandal ended one congressman’s career. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court blew up the state’s gerrymandered congressional map and redrew it to the Democrats’ benefit, leading Costello to announce he wouldn’t run for reelection. Then Nov. 6, 2018, happened.
GOP Rep. Lou Barletta, who tied himself closely to the president, lost by nearly 700,000 votes in his challenge to Democratic Sen. Bob Casey. The result in the governor’s race was even worse: Republican Scott Wagner lost by more than 800,000 votes.
“These weren’t just defeats. They were bad defeats,” said Pennsylvania-based GOP consultant Charlie Gerow. “The party has to be unified in order to win in 2020.”
The bleeding has led a faction of Republicans to point their fingers at the state party chairman: Val DiGiorgio, who hails from populous and increasingly Democratic southeastern Pennsylvania.
“The 2018 results clearly indicate that leadership needs to be looked at — there’s no doubt in my mind there,” said Bruce Hottle, a state party committee member from western Pennsylvania, a Trump stronghold.
The list of complaints about DiGiorgio is long: He’s a bad fundraiser. His staff is anemic. Though he eventually got behind Trump in 2016, he initially backed Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the primary. And after a bruising election for state committee leader in 2017 — DiGiorgio won by just two votes — his critics say he hasn’t put the party back together.
“Our position was much better two years ago. A blind man would see that,” said Mike Cibik, a state party committee member living in Philadelphia. “There isn’t sufficient staff … and they aren’t raising money.”
DiGiorgio’s supporters argue that he did everything he could in a year that was devastating for Republicans across the country, and that his critics are merely bitter after backing his opponent in the 2017 election for state party leader. They also point out that the state GOP’s two committees brought in roughly the same amount of money during the 2017-18 midterm cycle as in the 2013-14 period, though the party relied more on funding from the Republican National Committee this time around.
“During tough times this cycle, Chairman Val DiGiorgio was a sure and steady leader for Republican candidates up and down the ticket,” said Republican Joe Scarnati, the state Senate president pro tempore.
The Trump White House, which has a history of intervening in state party leadership fights, is well aware of the Pennsylvania unrest. Top Trump allies are eager to have a strong Trump voice atop the state party in 2020. In Ohio and Michigan — two battleground states that, like Pennsylvania, were critical to Trump’s election — the president and his allies helped put loyalists at the helm of the state GOP committees ahead of the midterm election.
But in Pennsylvania, the Trump team sat out the election for state party chairman in 2017 — and some state Republicans now fear that was a mistake.
In 2016, the Trump campaign, RNC and state GOP worked together closely to build a ground operation for the president. DiGiorgio’s critics fear that, in particular, could be at risk if the party isn’t fortified.
“The ground game was important and took resources, people power, and money,” said Cibik. “We’re going to need that again in 2020, and right now, I don’t feel good about it.”
A source familiar with the Trump campaign, though, dismissed concerns about the issue: “The RNC is going to execute a [ground game] plan through the state party whether Val raises $100,000 or $100 million.”
The Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania only has $94,000 on hand, according to campaign finance reports — almost $1 million less than the party had at the same point four years ago. The party’s headquarters staff has shrunk from between 16 employees in 2014, according to the previous chairman, to seven. DiGiorgio said he prefers “we put money into the field.”
The state GOP also has a separate federal committee with about $320,000 on hand, about $50,000 more than it had in the bank four years ago.
Rumors are swirling that DiGiorgio’s critics may try to force a vote of no confidence at the state party’s next meeting in early 2019, though it’s unclear how that would work procedurally or what would come next if the rebels were successful. DiGiorgio’s term is not over until 2021.
But there’s already been fallout for DiGiorgio: Since taking the reins at the state committee last February, he has faced criticism for not relinquishing his position as GOP leader in his home county of Chester — an affluent, highly educated, historically Republican collar county that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Earlier this month, after Chester County suffered some of the biggest GOP losses in the state in November, he stepped down from that role.
Trump campaign officials were in touch with DiGiorgio this month and plan to meet with him in the coming weeks, DiGiorgio’s team confirmed.
Chris Carr, political director for the Trump reelection campaign, said in a statement: “In a difficult year, the PA GOP was able to overcome many challenges. The organization supported Republican candidates up and down the ballot, made record-setting number of voter contacts, helped maintain majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, and deployed new campaign technology. All these efforts are a good start on the efforts the PA GOP will bring to the table to help President Trump get reelected in 2020.”
To some Republicans, especially those who lost reelection in November, Trump himself is largely responsible for the GOP’s shellacking in Pennsylvania.
Costello, who has been critical of the president, said the GOP’s double-digit losses in the state House in Harrisburg are “probably the best example of reverse coattails” this year.
“You’re talking about well-liked, experienced state representatives who worked their districts well and lost,” he said. “And they lost because people were just disgusted with Republicans.”
DiGiorgio has fought back aggressively against his critics, characterizing them as “people who have a sour-grapes agenda who lost the chairman election” and arguing that “there’s no one in the state who’s been more supportive of President Trump than I have.” His team shared a list of positive statements from some 10 elected officials, candidates, and donors.
Bob Asher, a top GOP fundraiser in Pennsylvania and an RNC member, called “on all sides to put aside their petty differences and work together.”
“These comments and allegations are counterproductive to what has been done and what we are continuing to try and accomplish in Pennsylvania,” he said. “It is a detriment to party unity and will only serve to hinder the president’s and congressional candidates’ chances in 2020.”
Republicans haven’t hit the panic button just yet. A top Pennsylvania political operative with close ties to the Trump campaign said “you may not get the door-knocking out of the party apparatus in the suburbs like you used to,” but “there’s still plenty of time to address those issues” before the presidential race.
Still, the last thing Republicans need in 2020 in a must-win state for Trump is a civil war.
“The only Republican who’s won Pennsylvania twice in the last 60 years-plus was Ronald Reagan,” said Gerow. “A divided party won’t prevail.”
Christopher Cadelago contributed to this report.