Trump goes into general election mode with rally in Pennsylvania

WILKES-BARRE, Pa. — Larry Mitko voted for Donald Trump in 2016. But the Republican from Beaver County, western Pennsylvania, said he was not considering supporting his party’s Senate candidate, Dr. Mehmet Oz – “no question, no how”.

Mitko doesn’t feel like he knows the famed heart surgeon, who narrowly won his May primary with Trump’s backing. Instead, Mitko plans to vote for Oz’s Democratic rival, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, a name he’s known from when Fetterman was mayor of nearby Braddock.

“Dr. Oz didn’t show me anything to vote for him,” he said. “I won’t vote for anyone I don’t know.”

Mitko’s thought underscores the political challenges facing Trump and the rest of the Republican Party as the former president shifts into general election mode with a Saturday night rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the first of the fall campaign .

Hours before Trump spoke, crowds poured into the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena. Doug Mastriano, the hardline GOP candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, was already there, as was Trump’s allied Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga.

While Trump-endorsed picks won many Republican primaries this summer, many of the candidates he backed were inexperienced and polarizing figures now struggling in their November races. That puts control of the Senate — once supposed to be a lock for Republicans — on the line.

Among those candidates are Oz in Pennsylvania, author JD Vance in Ohio, venture capitalist Blake Masters in Arizona and former football star Herschel Walker in Georgia.

“Republicans have now nominated a number of candidates who have never run before for high-profile Senate races,” veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. Although he is not yet writing his party’s odds, he said, “It’s a much tougher business than a candidate who had won several tough political races before.”

The stakes are particularly high for Trump as he lays the groundwork for an expected presidential election in 2024 amid a growing series of legal challenges, including the FBI’s recent seizure of classified documents from his Florida home. Investigators are also continuing to probe his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results.

President Joe Biden gave a prime-time speech in Philadelphia last week, warning that Trump and other “MAGA” Republicans – the acronym for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan – were a threat to American democracy. Biden tried to frame the upcoming vote, as he did for the 2020 election, as a battle for the “soul of the nation.” Biden’s Labor Day visit to Pittsburgh will be his third in the state in a week, a sign of the significance of the election year in Pennsylvania.

While Republicans were once seen as having a good chance of taking control of both houses of Congress in November, benefiting from soaring inflation, high gas prices and falling approval ratings for Biden, Republicans have found themselves on the defensive since the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v Wade ruling protecting abortion rights.

Some candidates, like Mastriano, stick to their main campaign playbooks, hoping they can win by toppling Trump’s loyal base even if they alienate or ignore more moderate voters.

Mastriano, who wants to ban abortions even when pregnancies are the result of rape or incest or endanger the mother’s life, played a leading role in Trump’s efforts to void the election of 2020 and was seen outside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. , as pro-Trump rioters stormed the building.

But others have tried to broaden their appeal, removing references from their websites to anti-abortion messages that are out of step with the political mainstream. Others played down Trump’s endorsements that once figured prominently.

The changing climate has prompted a series of finger-pointing within the party, including from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who last month cited “candidate quality” as he lowered expectations that the Republicans would regain control of the Senate.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who heads the National Republican Senate Committee, said those who complain about the party’s candidates have “contempt” for the voters who chose them.

Trump also hit back, calling McConnell a “shame” as he defended the party’s slate of candidates.

Democrats also stacked.

“Senate campaigns are candidate-versus-candidate battles, and Republicans have presented a slate of deeply flawed recruits,” said David Bergstein, communications director for the Senate Democratic campaign committee.

He credited Trump with deterring experienced Republicans from running, elevating flawed candidates and forcing them into positions out of step with the general electorate. A Trump spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans are hoping Oz’s shortcomings as a candidate will be overshadowed by worries about Fetterman, who suffered a stroke days before the primary and was sidelined for much of the year. ‘summer. He continues to keep a light public schedule and struggled to speak fluently at a recent event.

Republicans acknowledge that Oz struggles to come across as authentic and has been slow to fight back as Fetterman spent the summer following him on social media and portraying him as an out-of-touch baggage handler from New Jersey.

As Fetterman leads Oz in polls and fundraising, Republicans say they expect the financial gap to narrow and are happy to see Oz within reach after being hammered by 20 million dollars of negative publicity in the primaries.

The Republican National Senate Committee is helping fund a new series of Oz TV ads, and the Senate Leadership Fund, a McConnell-aligned super political action committee, says it added $9.5 million to its purchase. television, bringing its overall commitment to $34.1 million by the election. Day.

A super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., claims to have made $32 million in TV ad bookings in the state.

Oz won over some once-skeptical voters, like Glen Rubendall, who did not vote for the TV doctor in his seven-vote primary – a victory so narrow it was recounted statewide – but said he had returned.

“I listened to him speak, and now I have a pro-Oz perspective,” said Rubendall, a retired corrections officer.

Traci Martin, a registered independent, also plans to vote for Oz because she opposes abortion, despite ads running during the primary with past statements from Oz that appeared supportive of abortion rights.

“I hope he’s (anti-abortion),” Martin said, “but the saddest thing is that we live in a time where we see politicians saying one thing and doing another.”

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Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press writer Brian Slodysko in Washington contributed to this report.

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Helen J. Jimenez