PHILADELPHIA — Lou Barletta, darling of the Republican establishment?
That might sound odd. The former congressman was among Donald Trump’s earliest supporters in 2016 — at a time when most national Republicans either didn’t take him seriously or desperately sought to elect anyone else.
But now Barletta is being anointed by some Pennsylvania Republican Party leaders as their last best chance to stop gubernatorial front-runner Doug Mastriano, the state senator from Franklin County who is perhaps even more popular among the MAGA faithful.
That’s the message being conveyed by state Senate leader Jake Corman, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, former Gov. Mark Schweiker and former Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley. All of them endorsed or were scheduled to endorse Barletta’s campaign Thursday. Corman, himself a candidate for governor, asked voters to ignore his name on the ballot and support Barletta instead.
“The amazing thing about Lou’s campaign is he’s consistently been towards the top of the polls in his race, despite spending far less money than other candidates,” Corman said as the two appeared together in Harrisburg. “It shows his popularity. It shows his tenacity.”
The other leading rivals to Mastriano, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain and former Delaware County Councilman Dave White have their own big-name supporters. But so far it’s Barletta who has gathered the most support from party leaders seeking a single alternative to Mastriano, who they fear would lose the general election to presumptive Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro.
Barletta’s rivals dismissed Corman’s endorsement.
“It should surprise absolutely no one that career politician Jake Corman would endorse career politician Lou Barletta — this is the swamp endorsing the swamp,” Bob Salera, White’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “Both Corman and Barletta have spent more than two decades on the public payroll, racking up massive taxpayer funded pensions along the way.”
Barletta first drew national attention as mayor of Hazleton in Northeastern Pennsylvania. In 2006, he championed an ordinance prohibiting employers from hiring and landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants.
The city faced litigation and the ordinance never took effect, but it elevated Barletta’s profile around the same time that the leader of his party — President George W. Bush — was seeking a bipartisan immigration deal that would have offered legal status to people living here illegally. The bill failed — as has every other proposed immigration overhaul since then.
But the GOP as a whole didn’t seem to fully embrace a restrictionist immigration platform until Trump’s presidency. Which is another way of saying the party finally came around to Lou Barletta.
With Trump’s support, Barletta easily won the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 2018. But it was partly because of his 13-point loss to incumbent Democratic Sen. Bob Casey in the general election that Barletta couldn’t clear the primary field for governor this year. Instead, there are nine candidates on the ballot — the most in a GOP gubernatorial primary in Pennsylvania since 1978.
Yet Barletta’s aides have long believed that given his name recognition and popularity with GOP primary voters, he is the only candidate who ever had much of a shot of beating Mastriano.
Barletta said he hasn’t spoken to other candidates about backing him.
“I think each person needs to look at their campaign and where they want to go,” Barletta said. “That’s a personal decision.”