He’s a GOP Immigration Hard-Liner. So Why Is He Trailing in Trump Country?
Posted August 2, 2018 7:41 p.m. EDT
Updated August 2, 2018 7:43 p.m. EDT
YOUNGSTOWN, Pa. — The two-story house, painted like an American flag and with a giant Trump lawn sign, was a semifamous roadside attraction in 2016. Hundreds of people detoured an hour outside Pittsburgh to take pictures there, and Donald Trump himself tweeted an image of the “Trump House.”
Now another election season is underway, and Lou Barletta, a congressman and the Republican candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, has cast himself in the Trump mold, hoping to win statewide the way the president did.
The Trump House is still in the same place. But the voters may not be.
Across the street, three factory workers on a lunch break last week said they had not even heard of Barletta, who forged his political identity as the mayor of a small city at the other end of the state that he vowed to make “one of the toughest places in the United States” for unauthorized immigrants.
A few blocks down Latrobe Street at the Tin Lizzy Tap Room, Bob Lihan, a retired brewery worker, said that though he thought Trump was “doing great,” he planned to vote for Barletta’s Democratic opponent, Sen. Bob Casey Jr., in the fall — that is, if he votes at all.
Trump’s strategy for keeping Congress in Republican hands has been to excite his base to turn out at the polls in close House and Senate races. That has meant — more than any other issue — pushing his hard line on immigration, whether by accusing Democrats of trying to “infest” the country with unauthorized immigrants, or by threatening to shut down the government over money for “the wall.”
But Barletta’s campaign is lagging far behind Casey’s in the polls and in fundraising, even though he is one of the biggest immigration hawks in Congress. His struggles illustrate how Trump’s lightning-in-a-bottle victory may not be easy to duplicate this year in swing states like Pennsylvania.
Barletta is one of several Republican nominees closely aligned with Trump who do not appear to be getting much benefit from his endorsements in their general election races. Others include the Senate nominees in Virginia (Corey Stewart, known for defending Confederate monuments) and in West Virginia (Patrick Morrisey, the attorney general and a former pharmaceutical lobbyist).
Their difficulties suggest that, while Trump’s blessing can be crucial in winning a primary, hugging him closely in a general election race can be counterproductive for some Republicans, pushing away independent voters and firing up Democrats who are burning to rebuke the president this fall.
Trump was able to carry Pennsylvania — something no Republican presidential nominee had done since 1988 — because places like Westmoreland County, which includes Youngstown and the Trump House east of Pittsburgh, voted for him in huge and unexpected numbers. He won the county, a mainly exurban and rural area that was once a blue-collar Democratic stronghold, by 31 percentage points, a wider margin than in any other major county in the state.
Barletta needs a surge of similar proportions there, because he is expected to underperform in the populous Philadelphia suburbs on account of his divisive immigration views.
Notably, though, when Trump comes to Pennsylvania on Thursday to appear at a rally for Barletta, it will not be in strategic western Pennsylvania. It will be in the northeast, Barletta’s home base, where the candidate is already popular.
A tour of Westmoreland County last week found that dozens of Trump supporters there are only vaguely aware of Barletta.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about, really,” said Fred Tomlinson, a retired machinist.
Some said they would vote for Barletta anyway, simply because of the “R” after his name. But others said they would sit out the election or vote for Casey, a two-term incumbent and the son of a former governor. “A lot of pro-Trump voters turned out in 2016 who may not show up in 2018,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist in Pennsylvania. “They were disaffected, not folks that generally vote in nonpresidential years. How many of them you can get back to the polls is an interesting question, and a significant challenge.”
In an interview, Barletta challenged both the accuracy of state polls — recalling how badly they missed Trump’s popularity here in 2016 — and the notion that his lack of name recognition was a problem.
“Here’s what we do know,” he said. “Once people do meet me, once people do learn about my record, we catch Casey every single time.”
“You tell me how a blue-collar Democrat that stood in line for two hours to vote for Donald Trump turns around to vote for Bob Casey,” he added.
Barletta’s political career began in Hazleton, about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia, which experienced a wave of Hispanic newcomers in the early 2000s.
As mayor, Barletta maintained that the newcomers were bringing crime and drug problems and straining city services. He backed a 2006 ordinance to penalize businesses that hired unauthorized immigrants and landlords who rented to them.
The ordinance, the Illegal Immigration Relief Act, was overturned in the federal courts and never took effect. But it propelled Barletta to an appearance on “60 Minutes” and, in 2010, a seat in Congress, where he was a leader of the successful 2013 effort to kill a comprehensive immigration bill that had passed the Senate.
In March 2016, he endorsed Trump, becoming one of the first lawmakers to back a candidate whose xenophobic language broke previous norms of acceptability.
Voters in Westmoreland County, which is 95 percent white, flocked to Trump and his hard line on immigration in 2016. But Eric Porterfield, a film producer who grew up in the county, said it was infuriating when outsiders suggested that prejudice was the reason.
“It may appear that if I’m against immigration, that translates into me being a racist,” Porterfield said, channeling the views of many county residents. “But really what it means is, I’m afraid. Afraid of my job being lost. Of being displaced from my home.”
Porterfield, 58, was having breakfast at Dick’s Diner in Murrysville during a visit home from State College, where he now lives. He recalled an uncle who had lost a steel mill job in the 1970s and wound up working as a short-order cook at Dick’s, the same job he had had as a teenager.
Porterfield said the news that morning that the economy was growing at a 4.1 percent annual rate would help Republicans in the fall. “That’s what these guys vote for,” he said. “This is blue-collar Pennsylvania.”
But another diner, Michele Clarke, 71, a liberal, said social issues were what mattered most to her conservative neighbors. “People don’t want the white American culture to change,” said Clarke, a retired director of parks and recreation in Murrysville. On a hot July evening, a parking lot on Route 22 was filled with U.S. muscle cars of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Barracudas, Mustangs and Thunderbirds in glistening paint jobs sat displayed with their hoods open to show off spotless engines.
The owners sat in camp chairs on the surrounding lawn, in sight of a pro-Barletta billboard across the highway showing an empty suit and saying “Bob Casey: 12 Years of Nothing.”
Bill Adams, owner of a black 1965 Cobra, said he was unfamiliar with Barletta, but would vote for him out of support for Trump, to “keep the good times rolling.”
There was plenty of cynicism about all politicians among the retired salesmen, utility linemen and factory workers who owned the cars. One man (white 1965 Mustang) was still furious that Bill Clinton had lied about having sex with Monica Lewinsky. Another (1972 Cutlass) said he would wait to make up his mind a week before Election Day. “I’ll read their lies then, and pick out the one that’s the least agitating to me,” he said.
Though they knew little of Barletta, the car collectors mostly supported the president’s stance on immigration. Some praised his policy of separating children from parents at the border, whichTrump rescinded under intense pressure.
“They all came here illegally — now, all these people are protesting because these kids are not with their parents,” Darryl Lender said. “Hey, put them all in a boat and send them back where they came from and let them sort it out. Why should we pay for it?”
Even so, Lender, who worked in a steel mill and then sold real estate, is an ambivalent Trump supporter, unsure how he will vote in the fall. “I think he’s got the country in turmoil,” he said of the president.
Back in Youngstown, the real estate investor who owns the Trump House, Leslie Rossi, definitely knows who Barletta is. She decided in 2016 to paint the house, which is unoccupied, to increase awareness of Trump.
But she fears that his surge of support that year may have been a one-off, unrepeatable in the midterms, especially since most voters in Westmoreland County are registered as Democrats.
“It’s hard for them to step out of the box and vote for every Republican,” she said. “I don’t think anyone will win Westmoreland County the way Trump did.”