The Republican primary campaign for governor of Pennsylvania in 2022 is shaping up as a battle for the Trump vote and as a sometimes clumsy rush to gain the former president’s endorsement.
Among a dozen declared or likely Republican candidates are former four-term Rep. Lou Barletta, known for his tough views on immigration; state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who has started an audit of the 2020 election that Mr. Trump lost; and former U.S. Attorney William McSwain of Philadelphia, who got Mr. Trump‘s attention by claiming that Attorney General William P. Barr ordered him not to investigate election fraud in November.
Mr. Barr denied the accusation this week.
The former president hasn’t signaled his intention, but Mr. Barletta is working with the political consulting firm National Public Affairs, run by former Trump campaign officials Bill Stepien, Justin Clark, and Nick Trainer. Mr. Barletta is also represented by former Trump campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh.
A former mayor of Hazleton, Mr. Barletta was endorsed by Mr. Trump for his unsuccessful Senate bid in 2018 against Democratic Sen. Bob Casey.
Mr. Barletta said he hasn’t spoken with the former president but hopes to earn his endorsement again.
“It’s huge. He’s the leader of our party. It would be coveted by me, and I’m not going to take it for granted,” Mr. Barletta said in an interview. “I don’t need to pull any stunts to try and get President Trump’s support. I’ll let the others do what they need to do to try to get attention.”
Mr. McSwain wrote a letter on June 9 to Mr. Trump, disclosed by the former president Monday. The federal prosecutor said Mr. Barr blocked him from investigating election fraud in the incumbent’s 80,000-vote loss to Joseph R. Biden in Pennsylvania.
He called the election “a partisan disgrace” and said Mr. Barr told him to refer any election irregularities to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat.
“I will be the Republican candidate for governor with the best chance to win the general election in November 2022,” Mr. McSwain, a Trump appointee, told the former president. “I would be honored to have your support. I hope to see you soon.”
He told conservative radio talk show host Dom Giordano in Philadelphia on Tuesday, “I’m not making any judgments about what I would or would not have found. But what I didn’t like was that I wasn’t free to follow the evidence wherever it leads.”
Mr. Trump called the revelations “outrageous.”
Mr. Barr, who angered Mr. Trump in December by announcing there was no significant fraud in the presidential election, vehemently denied Mr. McSwain’s accusations.
“He told me that he had to do this [letter to Mr. Trump] because he was under pressure from Trump, and for him to have a viable candidacy, he couldn’t have Trump attacking him,” Mr. Barr told The Philadelphia Inquirer, recounting a conversation with Mr. McSwain.
“The letter is written in a very deceptive way that is intended to convey an impression, it’s a false one, that he was restrained from looking into election fraud.”
Mr. Barr said he gave U.S. attorneys discretion last year to investigate “specific, credible” allegations of election fraud but prevented Mr. McSwain from making broad political statements about the election.
Mr. McSwain said Wednesday that his letter to Mr. Trump “is 100% true.”
“I have a lifetime reputation for honesty that is beyond reproach,” Mr. McSwain tweeted. “I have more important things to be concerned about than Bill Barr’s feelings. I’m concerned about the future of PA and of our country. We need change in our politics — badly. And it will come in 2022.”
Mr. Mastriano, a Republican from Franklin County who has yet to announce his plans for 2022, has launched his own “forensic investigation” into the election by requesting voting data from three Pennsylvania counties, including Philadelphia.
Mr. Trump called Mr. Mastriano a “great patriot” for seeking to model his effort on the Arizona Republican Party’s election audit in Maricopa County.
Mr. Mastriano also committed a major misstep this spring after meeting with Mr. Trump at Trump Tower in New York City. The legislator said later on a radio show that Mr. Trump urged him to run for governor and suggested he had his endorsement.
“’Doug, run, and I’ll campaign for you,’” Mr. Mastriano said, recounting his conversation with Mr. Trump. There were two blunders in the same breath: revealing a conversation with the former president and implying he had his endorsement.
A Trump spokesman clarified that Mr. Mastriano “asked for the President’s support, but there has not been an endorsement.” In Trump world, it was a significant smackdown.
Mr. Mastriano said he wants to “restore faith in the integrity of our [election] system” and identify areas for reform by the legislature. He asked the counties to respond by July 31.
Mr. Shapiro, who might seek the Democratic nomination for governor, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf are vowing to block counties from complying with Mr. Mastriano’s election investigation. They said the state had conducted reviews and found nothing improper.
The state Republican Party send out a fundraising email Wednesday citing the opposition from Mr. Shapiro and Mr. Wolf and seeking support for an election audit.
“If Pennsylvania’s election was as secure as the claim, they should have no problem with a full forensic investigation of the results,” the email told potential donors. “As a citizen of Pennsylvania, YOU have a RIGHT to know that our elections are free and fair — and our grassroots party is going to fight to uncover the truth for you.”
Only one professional poll of the potential Republican field has been conducted. Released in March, it showed Mr. Barletta in the lead with 20% of voters’ support, followed by Mr. Mastriano with 11%, Mr. McSwain with 3%, Rep. Daniel Meuser with 3%, and former Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley with 2%. About 60% of respondents had no preference.
Mr. Barletta supports an election audit and has formed an advisory committee of former county officials to develop recommendations. In his campaign travels, he said, voters tell him they are upset about the presidential election.
“People feel that that something was wrong, and now there are people who are opposing looking into it, which makes you even more suspicious that something was fishy there,” Mr. Barletta said. “Why would [Democrats] not want to strengthen election security? Who would be against that?”
He said he was disappointed by Mr. Biden’s visit to Philadelphia on Tuesday when the president renewed his push for Democratic election bills in Congress that would weaken states’ voter ID laws. Mr. Biden also said Republican election laws in various states were efforts to “subvert” democracy.
“It was hard for me to watch and listen to that when we know right where he was: in Philadelphia,” Mr. Barletta said. “They kicked out poll watchers, Republican poll watchers, and wouldn’t allow them in while they were opening up the ballots. It was hypocritical what he was saying and where he was saying it from, right in Philadelphia, where they even ignored a court order to allow them in. It was disappointing to hear President Biden scold Americans when we saw what happened, right where he was in Philadelphia.”
The Trump campaign argued in November that observers at the Pennsylvania Convention Center were kept too far away from the vote-counting. A judge on the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court later ruled that observers must be allowed within 6 feet of the counting.