Do Pa. Republicans still support Trump for president? The answer is becoming complicated.

Bruce Siwy Matthew Rink Bethany Rodgers
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

Donald Trump's long-expected announcement from balmy Palm Beach, Florida had a cool reception from some Pennsylvania Republicans.

On Tuesday, the former president formally declared his bid for the presidency in 2024. But a portion of GOP officials and voters in Pennsylvania are souring on the idea of Trump leading their ticket in two years.

"The question, basically, is Trump still relevant? My answer is a resounding 'no,'" said state Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie), after Trump-backed candidates lost in key races at the top of the ticket in Pennsylvania last week.

"As an elected official myself, who's a member of our party, we actually like to win races, not just primaries."

Former President Donald Trump speaks at his media event in the ballroom at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on Nov. 15, 2022.

No 'red wave' in 2022

Laughlin — a moderate Republican who has supported marijuana legalization and maintaining current abortion laws in Pennsylvania — is among those who are blaming Trump for the "red wave" that petered into a "red ripple" this month. Democrats largely avoided the "midterm curse" as Republicans failed to flip the Senate and are expected to regain just a slim majority in the House of Representatives.

In Pennsylvania, GOP performance was especially poor: Though Republicans held their seven-seat majority in the state Senate, Trump-backed candidates for governor and U.S. Senate were beaten, and Democrats may retake the state House for the first time in more than a decade.

"One only needs to look at the state of Pennsylvania from a national perspective and see that we got our clocks cleaned in the governor's race because we ran an election denier that Trump supported in the primary," Laughlin said.

"If you look at this logically, a lot of voters would say, well, you know, the Dobbs decision weighed heavily on these races, as well," he added, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that reversed constitutional protections for abortion access. "But, quite frankly, who appointed the judges that overturned Roe?"

Trump named three conservative justices — all from a Republican Party wish list at least in part for their pro-life views — to the Supreme Court.

Former President Donald Trump and ally Doug Mastriano, the GOP nominee for Pennsylvania governor, at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Sept. 3, 2022.

Commonwealth Leaders Fund treasurer Matt Brouillette was similarly critical of the former president.

Brouillette's PAC, a conservative outfit that funds candidates who support school choice, is among the most powerful in Pennsylvania. He wasn't happy about Trump inserting himself in the commonwealth's races.

"As much as Donald Trump was on the ballot," Brouillette said, "he was the big loser of this election, and hopefully he'll stop being the Democratic Party's No. 1 asset in elections."

The midterms may instead cement Democratic President Joe Biden as his party's nominee in 2024. Spencer Kimball, executive director of Emerson College Polling in Boston, said he sees the 2022 election outcome as a potential turning point for Biden.

"It might have helped to stop opposition from forming based on these results," he said.

Biden midterm

Trump vs. DeSantis?

According to Kimball, things are becoming more interesting on the Republican side. Emerson College's pre-midterm polling had Trump leading Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis 2-to-1 among Republicans, with former Vice President Mike Pence at approximately 9% for a distant third.

"DeSantis's victory of plus-20 in Florida really raised a lot of eyebrows in terms of what his potential is," Kimball said.

"We'll see what he ends up doing in light of Trump announcing his candidacy for '24. In all of the polling he has been the alternative, it appears, to Trump with no other candidate reaching 10%."

Gov. Ron DeSantis visited Fort Walton Beach High School Tuesday to announce an expansion of the Purple Star Schools of Distinction program. The program supports military dependent students as they relocate to new schools when their parents are
transferred to a new base. DeSantis announced that 114 Florida schools were receiving this distinction, including 35 in Okaloosa County.

Jim Foreman, chair of the Blair County Republican Party, said Trump is announcing amid serious self-reflection from his base.

"There's, like (with) many candidates, a spectrum of replies and maybe even a mild divide where some people supported him in 2016 and 2020 and unrelentingly support him in 2024," he said. "I think there are others who are looking at the outcome of this most recent midterm and looking at what factors and considerations led to lackluster results for Republicans in Pennsylvania and across the nation."

According to Foreman, there is, and should be, debate about the GOP's path moving forward.

He noted that GOP candidates for treasurer and auditor general won statewide races just two years ago. Resonating with this crucial battleground state's 1.3 million independent voters, he added, is the key.

"Republicans can win in Pennsylvania," Foreman said. "But their messaging, their connection with the middle, was there, and it made a difference."

In a tease of what awaits DeSantis should he declare a 2024 White House bid, Trump shared a nickname for the Florida governor in a mass email from Save America PAC, a political action committee for the former president.

"Ron DeSanctimonious is playing games! The Fake News asks him if he’s going to run if President Trump runs, and he says, 'I’m only focused on the Governor’s race, I’m not looking into the future.' Well, in terms of loyalty and class, that’s really not the right answer," Trump wrote.

Trump 2024 still formidable

DeSantis or no DeSantis, stopping Trump in the primary is likely to prove challenging.

Erie County Republican Party Chair Tom Eddy said that while Trump energizes Democrats as much as his own supporters, the former president continues to stockpile millions and enjoy a loyal base.

"If Trump puts his name in the hat, he's going to be a very difficult person to beat in the primaries," Eddy said. "That's all there is to it. And if you're a conservative, you're going to have to support him or you're going to take a beating."

A young supporter of former president Donald Trump raises a painting depicting Trump's face on Southern Boulevard on Tuesday, November 15, 2022, in Palm Beach, FL. Hundreds of Trump supporters gathered near the former president's Mar-A-Lago estate awaiting his expected announcement of a 2024 presidential campaign.

He added that he believes fellow Republicans are "too simplistic" in finding a scapegoat for 2022 losses: "They're too quick to blame everything on Trump."

Rebecca Katz, senior adviser for the Fetterman campaign, said she considered the Pennsylvania midterms as inconclusive if viewed as a referendum on Trumpism.

“My biggest worry is that Democrats will look at the results and think we're done here. And we have so much work to do,” Katz said. “There’s a lot of candidates who are filled with hate who got pretty big percentages.”

Joe Corrigan, a Democratic strategist in Pennsylvania, would disagree.

“The Pennsylvania electorate is Trumped out,” he said. “I just think people are sick and tired of it.”

Because of this, Corrigan said, he hopes Trump runs for president.

Trump's ongoing presence in national politics is a liability for Republicans all the way down the ballot, he said. Democratic candidates in the Pennsylvania midterms played off frustrations about Trump by making the case that their GOP opponents were cast in the same mold as the former president.

“Our folks were able to make the argument that Republicans in Harrisburg, in the Legislature, are just as bad as Donald Trump and just as bad as Dr. Oz and just as bad as Doug Mastriano,” he said.

The final straw?

As of last month, Emerson College polling had Pennsylvanians split evenly at 44% a piece for Trump and Biden in a hypothetical rematch in 2024.

Voters may laugh at mean tweets, shrug off impeachments and even forgive the potential incitement of an insurrection. But in a blood sport like politics, losing is perhaps the greatest sin.

Asked if he would still support Trump if he becomes the party's nominee, Laughlin balked.

It won't happen, he said. Trump's popularity, he insisted, isn't strong enough to secure the GOP nomination again after recent missteps.

"I'm telling you right now," Laughlin said. "The tide has turned. His days are over."