Former President Donald Trump is singling out Pennsylvania for his first rally of the general election on Saturday, where two of his most besieged candidates in the country are threatening to tarnish his record as a kingmaker.
The fact that he has zeroed in on the swing state for the politically symbolic Labor Day weekend, the unofficial kickoff of the midterms, demonstrates how pivotal Pennsylvania is to his success this year — and, more likely than not, a future presidential campaign.
Trump’s visit to the state also signals that he has prioritized coming to the aid of Senate candidate Mehmet Oz and gubernatorial hopeful Doug Mastriano, who have lagged behind their Democratic opponents in polling and fundraising.
But President Joe Biden is campaigning in Pennsylvania during the long weekend, too, an acknowledgment that the races here are far from over.
“Both of them appearing so soon around Labor Day not only says Pennsylvania is a battleground in 2022, but it’s a battleground in 2024,” said Celinda Lake, a pollster for Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign. “Both of them want to run in an environment where their candidates have won in 2022.”
David Urban, a GOP strategist who was based in Pennsylvania when he served as a senior adviser for Trump’s 2016 campaign, called the dueling events by Trump and Biden “a little mano-a-mano foreshadowing perhaps — it’s an incredibly important state, whether it’s 1776 or 1986 or 2022 or 2024.”
Trump’s rally in northeastern Pennsylvania — also his first public event since the FBI searched his home in Mar-a-Lago — comes amid frustration among establishment Republicans that the former president has threatened their chances in an otherwise favorable political environment by endorsing weak or far-right candidates in the GOP primaries. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently said that the House is likelier to flip than the Senate, citing “candidate quality.”
No state better illustrates the GOP’s anxieties than Pennsylvania: Oz, the celebrity doctor who won the Senate nomination by fewer than 1,000 votes after a critical endorsement by Trump, is now trailing Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman by an average of more than 8 percentage points. That’s a wider margin than any other GOP Senate nominee is behind in a swing state.
Mastriano, meanwhile, is the second-most poorly positioned Republican gubernatorial candidate in the top battlegrounds, falling behind Attorney General Josh Shapiro by about 7 points. Mastriano ran as a full-throated MAGA warrior in the primary, though Trump only backed the state senator when he was already on track to win the nomination.
GOP leaders and political consultants aren’t the only ones who are going to scrutinize how many Trump-endorsed candidates are victorious this fall. Trump himself is obsessed with his win-loss record and regularly touts it on the campaign trail. Potential 2024 GOP candidates are also keeping an eye on it.
“His general-election win record is going to be incredibly important toward his 2024 prospects,” said a former Trump official. “If it’s perceived that he put his own interests over the party and good candidates who could have won, and the candidates he endorsed lose, that creates an opportunity for his opponents in early primary states to argue that the party suffered because of his selfish decisions.”
Republican and Democratic strategists said Oz has the most to gain from Trump’s visit because of his nagging problems unifying the party base.
Mastriano, the face of the effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania, has done a better job locking down Republican rank-and-file voters. In fact, he has focused almost exclusively on the base during the general election, making regular appearances in conservative outlets while icing out the mainstream press. Trump’s rally will be one of the first Mastriano events the national media is allowed inside to cover.
Many in the GOP still view Oz, on the other hand, as insufficiently conservative on abortion, gun rights and other key issues. When Trump held a rally in the state to boost Oz during the primary, Trump supporters in the crowd booed him.
“It’s not a bad thing for him to remind the Republican base he’s a much better choice than Fetterman,” said Josh Novotney, a Pennsylvania GOP consultant, of the former TV host popularly known as “Dr. Oz.”
A person close to Oz’s campaign said that the candidate’s internal polling has found that the “wounds from the primary … have pretty much healed up,” though they did not provide specifics.
Public polls — as well as other internals — have told a different story. An August survey by Susquehanna Polling and Research found Oz winning Republicans 78 percent to 13 percent, with 9 percent of GOP likely voters “still sitting on the fence.” Fetterman was ahead with Democrats 87 percent to 9 percent.
The location of Trump’s rally serves the dual purpose of attempting to troll Biden and build support for Mastriano and Oz in a key region: Trump will speak in Wilkes-Barre, just outside of Biden’s hometown of Scranton.
For his part, Biden will be in Pittsburgh for the city’s Labor Day parade, after traveling earlier this week to Philadelphia and Wilkes-Barre.
Luzerne County, where Wilkes-Barre is located, has played an outsized role in recent presidential and congressional elections. In 2016 Trump flipped the county, a white working-class area that was ancestrally Democratic, going a long way’s toward allowing him to capture the state. In 2020, Biden wasn’t able to take Luzerne, but he narrowed Trump’s margin of victory there and ran up the score in next-door Lackawanna County, helping him win back Pennsylvania.
In this year’s primary, Oz won both counties, giving him a jumping-off point to build from, though Fetterman received more votes in them than Oz.
For Mastriano, the counties were a rare weak spot on the map during the primary, likely because his top opponent hailed from northeastern Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, Shapiro, who is holding a campaign office opening on Saturday in Scranton, was the lone statewide Democratic candidate in 2020 to win Luzerne County.
“[Trump] will be incredibly well-received when he lands … it’s Trump country,” said Urban. “If you’re going to win in Pennsylvania, that’s where you need big Trump numbers.”