Sometimes, even when you win, you lose.
Just ask U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa.
Instead of basking in the reflected glow of his primary victory last week, the newly minted GOP nominee for U.S. Senate in a key, battleground state, found himself the victim of some high-level shade instead.
Speaking to The Washington Post recently, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., notably left Barletta’s general election match-up against Democratic incumbent Sen. Bob Casey off his list of races that he said could determine control of the Senate in 2019.
Republicans are defending a 51-49 majority heading into a tight mid-term cycle, in which Democrats are widely expected to wrest back control of the U.S. House.
So Republicans are understandably jumpy and taking nothing for granted. And Barletta’s troubles are a microcosm of the troubles Republicans face in states that went for President Donald Trump in 2016.
In truth, Barletta should probably have romped to victory over Jim Christiana, a state House member from Beaver County, outside Pittsburgh. Christiana had almost no money and even less-name recognition, while Barletta has been a fixture of state-level politics for years.
Barletta’s “lackadaisical and disorganized” 27-percentage point win over Christiana earned him a scathing story in The Washington Examiner that claimed that Pennsylvania Republicans were “hitting the panic button” over Barletta’s candidacy.
“The sense is, nobody knows what the f**k he’s doing,” a Republican strategist with Pennsylvania ties told the newspaper. “He’s not really working it hard. It’s a sad thing, because people like Lou.”
The same strategist added that “Casey should be vulnerable, but Lou is just like a ghost.”
Indeed, Casey did turn up on Roll Call’s list of the 10 most vulnerable senators ahead of the 2018 mid-term. But his inclusion seemed more a formality than any real acknowledgment of his vulnerability.
“Republicans and Democrats acknowledge that Casey is one of the least vulnerable Democratic senators running in states Trump carried in 2016,” Roll Call’s Simone Pathe and Bridget Bowman wrote. “Casey has broken fundraising records with more than $10 million on hand — the most of any Senate candidate in the state’s history according to Casey’s campaign. Barletta had $1.3 million on hand at the end of this year’s first quarter.”
Barletta’s comparable weakness as a fund-raiser seems to be the focus of GOP concerns about his viability as a candidate.
And his campaign bristled at any suggestion that Barletta was giving the race anything but his best effort.
“Lou Barletta is working his a** off to beat Bob Casey in November,” Jon Anzur, Barletta’s deputy campaign manager, told The Examiner. “Last quarter, Lou raised $1.3 million, the most he’s ever raised and among the most of any Senate challenger in the country. This week, Lou secured the Republican nomination for the Senate with 63 percent of the vote in his first statewide race. And nowhere in America is the president is more engaged in helping the Republican candidate win than he is with helping Lou Barletta in Pennsylvania.”
Indeed, Trump recorded an epic, two-minute robo-call on Barletta’s behalf that blew up the phones of Republican primary voters the weekend before the May 15 primary.
In the ultimate Trumpian honor, the president declared Barletta “a very special guy, adding that, “Lou Barletta was one of the very first people to get behind me in Pennsylvania. He was with me early on — before everyone else started jumping on board. It took courage for Lou to do that and I’ll never forget it.”
Pennsylvania was one of three states key to Trump’s 2016 presidential win.
Even so, they didn’t make the cut of McConnell’s must-win list, while Arizona, Nevada, Tennessee, Montana, North Dakota, Missouri, Indiana, West Virginia and Florida did.
There were “credible candidates that could get onto the radar screen” in Ohio and Pennsylvania,” McConnell told The Post. But Barletta’s fight against Casey hasn’t made the cut to the tier of races that he thinks will determine the majority, McConnell told the newspaper.
Meanwhile, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who lost his 2006 re-election bid to Casey, mused to the Examiner that “there are six or seven other races that are much more attractive from a fundraising point of view than slogging it out in a state like Pennsylvania.”
To keep the spigot of fund-raising cash open, Barletta will have to “continue show that his race is a viable race,” Santorum told The Examiner adding that he thinks Barletta’s race “will be one of those races if [party operatives] don’t fund, they’re going to kick themselves in November for not having funding,”
It’s a long time until November — and in the current climate, anything that can change will. But it remains to be seen whether Barletta will heed the early warnings, particularly when it comes to as tenacious a campaigner as Casey.
An award-winning political journalist, Micek is the Opinion Editor and Political Columnist for PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa. Readers may follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.