Donald Trump’s campaign is injecting itself into a battle to lead Pennsylvania’s Republican Party — a race with serious implications for the president’s reelection hopes that has badly divided the GOP in the battleground state.
The fight for the state’s vacant Republican chairmanship was triggered when Val DiGiorgio resigned from the position two weeks ago amid a scandal involving racy texts and allegations of sexual harassment. The episode set off fierce jockeying and backbiting within the state GOP, as Trump’s team tried to close ranks behind Bernadette “Bernie” Comfort, the party’s vice chairwoman for the past two years.
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But the Trump campaign’s involvement has not gone over well with some Pennsylvania Republicans, especially supporters of Comfort’s rival, attorney Lawrence Tabas. They argue that Trump’s advisers are unnecessarily taking sides in a local feud and could exacerbate longstanding power struggles within the state GOP.
The election on Saturday, to be decided by roughly 360 state GOP committee members, is expected to be close.
“People are pretty disgusted with the whole thing,” said Scott Wagner, a Republican donor who was the party’s unsuccessful 2018 gubernatorial nominee. “I’m afraid it’s going to backfire. It may be damaging to the president. This is sort of like a family issue. We don’t need interference from the outside.”
The showdown highlights the importance of Pennsylvania to the presidential race in 2020 — and the determination of Trump’s reelection team to quash any potential dissension within the party heading into next year. Trump’s aides have intervened in a number of states besides Pennsylvania toward that end.
“It shows that they still believe Pennsylvania is going to be a battleground state, first and foremost,” said Mick Mick McKeown, a former Trump administration official. “The next thing they’re doing by picking Bernie is not letting the party be divided again.”
If Trump’s team is successful in both electing Comfort and uniting the party, it would be a major victory. But the campaign is taking a risk by jumping into the race. If Comfort loses, Trump’s aides will have to work with a party chairman they actively opposed. And despite their best efforts, the election is exposing old divides within the state party.
Several top Trump associates have publicly endorsed Comfort: his son, Donald Trump, Jr.; campaign manager Brad Parscale; 2016 campaign aide David Urban; and campaign adviser Ted Christian. Former Reps. Tom Marino and Lou Barletta, who co-chaired Trump’s 2016 campaign in Pennsylvania, have also thrown their weight behind Comfort. Pennsylvania’s Republican National Committee members are in lockstep behind her, too.
Marino, Barletta and Christian have emailed state Republicans in support of Comfort, according to messages obtained by POLITICO. Trump’s team has also made calls to party lieutenants to determine who they are backing in the race, as they have done in other state chair elections.
A person close to the Trump campaign said Comfort is the “best leader” and “only candidate aligned with the president,” and will help both him and down-ballot Republicans win in the 2020. The fact that Comfort is a woman, this source said, “is a bonus.”
Indeed, some of Comfort’s supporters believe that having a woman at the helm of the state GOP is critical. They note that Trump has struggled to win over suburban female voters, and the stain of DiGiorgio’s #MeToo allegations risks worsening the party’s standing with that demographic. Comfort’s backers also argue that she already has experience leading the party as vice chair under DiGiorgio, and that it would be unwise to change midstream.
Under state party rules, Comfort became acting chair when DiGiorgio resigned. DiGiorgio strongly denies the claims of sexual harassment, saying that his communications with a city council candidate uncovered by the Philadelphia Inquirer were “entirely consensual.”
Tabas’ backers say he will help boost fundraising for the state party, which has had financing issues in recent years, and enjoys relationships with Republican leaders across the state from his days serving as general counsel of the Pennsylvania GOP. For instance, former state GOP chairman Rob Gleason supports Tabas.
“Bottom line, it’s about who can raise money,” said Mike Cibik, a pro-Tabas state committee member.
Barletta said he likely would have remained neutral if Trump’s campaign hadn’t gotten involved.
“I’m going to do everything I can to help the president win here in Pennsylvania, and feel that since they have obviously made a choice, that I am going to follow their leadership,” Barletta said. He added that “it seems to make sense not to have a big change” at the top of the party when the presidential election is around the corner.
Party insiders say the election is cleaving along geographical lines. But the sorting isn’t necessarily predictable: Many of Comfort’s allies are in the more moderate part of the state in the southeast, and several of Tabas’ supporters hail from the Trump-friendly west.
The race has also pitted two of the party’s donors against each other. Wagner, who is behind Tabas, shot off an email to supporters assailing the pro-Comfort Republican National Committee member Bob Asher for “working the phones calling people to influence who becomes the next party chairman,” and saying his “politics have left our party bitterly fractured and highly dysfunctional.” Wagner is calling for Asher to be removed from his position in the party.
That’s not it: Some of Comfort’s supporters have accused Tabas of going against Trump’s wishes by staying in the race, while a handful of Tabas’ allies have labeled Comfort a onetime “Never Trumper.” Comfort has repeatedly said she is firmly behind Trump. But it’s a familiar concern in the party: DiGiorgio, who initially backed Sen. Marco Rubio in the 2016 primary, was seen as insufficiently pro-Trump by some Republicans.
Charlie Gerow, a state committee member and GOP consultant who is backing Tabas, said Trump’s aides should not have taken sides.
“If he’s speaking on behalf of the campaign, I think he’s making a major mistake,” Gerow said of a recent tweet in which Parscale announced his support for Comfort. “I would say stay the hell out of it. There’s no good scenario. Even if you win, you have bruised feelings that need to be healed.”
Cibik said of the Trump campaign’s involvement: “I’m flabbergasted. I just don’t get that.”
When Tabas ran against DiGiorgio for party chair in 2017, he lost by only two votes. The battle bruised the party, and in its wake, Republicans lost three congressional seats, the gubernatorial and Senate elections, and numerous state positions.
“We’ve got to be one team to help President Trump in Pennsylvania,” said Barletta. “We cannot be divided at the end of this process.”