For many Pennsylvania voters, Trumpism is bigger than Trump

LAUGHLINTOWN, Pa. — Michael Testa, 51, an Army veteran and handyman, drives a minivan covered in “Trump Won” bumper stickers.

He recently stood in the rain and mud for hours to attend Donald Trump’s rally in Pennsylvania. He calls himself a “conspiracy realist” and said he is one of millions who believe the 2020 election was stolen from the former president.

But as he sat on his front porch in Laughlintown, a small Westmoreland County district outside Pittsburgh that was once home to the Mellon family fortune, he wasn’t sure which candidate to vote for in Tuesday’s primary. Republicans for the Pennsylvania Senate. He is hesitant to support Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor Trump has endorsed.

“I’m not going to be someone who does something just because one person says so, even if that person is Trump,” Testa said.

Like other Republican primaries across the country, the Pennsylvania Senate race is testing how strong Trump’s grip on the party remains. But unlike other primaries this year, the Pennsylvania Senate race suddenly became something more: a case study in whether the movement Trump created is still under his control.

In interviews with more than two dozen Republican voters in western Pennsylvania, many echoed Testa’s ambivalence and uncertainty about Dr. Oz: Despite Trump’s endorsement, they view him with suspicion, calling him “too Hollywood.” ” and question their ties to the Express. Those Republicans, including Testa, said they were instead voting or considering voting for Kathy Barnette, the far-right author and conservative media commentator who has risen in the polls on a shoestring budget.

In a race that could determine control of the Senate, many Republicans in the state feel deeply devoted to Trump but, at the same time, less influenced by his guidance. Trumpism, as Barnette herself put it on the campaign trail, is bigger than Trump.

Many voters said they were choosing who they thought would carry out Trump’s ideals, even if they and the former president disagreed on who could do it better. And the interviews showed how effectively Ms. Barnette, who never held public office, used her life story as a poor black girl from the south to connect with working-class white voters in western Pennsylvania. At events and in advertisements for her, Ms. Barnette often invokes the phrase “I am you.”

Many voters who said they planned to vote for Ms. Barnette struggled to remember her name and said they were rooting for “that black woman.” Those who said they would vote for her said they didn’t know about her or weren’t bothered by her history of homophobia and anti-muslim points of view. But her strong anti-abortion beliefs — Ms. Barnette calls herself a “rape byproduct” — have been a key part of her appeal to white conservatives.

“I like what she represents,” said Dolores Mrozinski, 83, who first saw Ms. Barnette on the Christian Television Network and was immediately impressed. “She makes no sense and she is real.”

Years ago, Mrs. Mrozinski and her daughter, Janey Mrozinski, a 62-year-old physical therapist, saw Dr. Oz on television and even admired him. Now, the old Miss Mrozinski said, “he just doesn’t look genuine.”

“I don’t even know if he actually lives in Pennsylvania,” he said, referring to Dr. Oz’s long history, until recent years, of living and voting in New Jersey. “It looks more Hollywood than it does here and I’m not impressed.”

Her daughter added: “It looks like she had a face lift.” On the other hand, David McCormick, a former hedge fund executive who is also running in the primary, was simply, he said, “too proud of himself.”

In many ways, voting for the Senate seat is as much a battle over perceived authenticity as any ideological or political debate. For months now, the major candidates have tried to align themselves closely with Trump and promote his conservative credentials. In the close competition between the top contenders, Dr. Oz, Mrs. Barnette, and Mr. McCormick, all three have gone to great lengths to present themselves as the true MAGA warrior.

Some voters have clearly decided which they think is more authentic. But others are still deciding.

One look at John Artzberger’s auto body shop along Highway 8 in Butler County makes his political leanings clear: A “Let’s Go Brandon” flag flies from the shop’s marquee and Trump paraphernalia covers a large wall near the entrance. When a client asked him to put up a Barnette lawn sign out front, he didn’t hesitate to agree. Still, the sign was just a sign: He said that he was undecided and was considering voting for Mrs. Barnette or Dr. Oz.

“She is 100 percent on our side — closing the border, pro-life,” Artzberger, 68, said of Barnette. “If she gets it, she will be for the people.” Like many other Republicans in Butler County, Mr. Artzberger views Dr. Oz’s previous time in the spotlight with disdain.

“But then again, Trump had also been in the public eye, and he ended up really being with us,” he said. “I’ve changed, so maybe he changed too.”

In Laughlintown, Westmoreland County, it takes about 10 steps to travel from the front porch of Mr. Testa’s old Craftsman to the front doors of the little brick church next door. In that short distance looms the identity crisis of the Republican Party.

Jonathan Huddleston, 48, a minister at the Laughlintown Christian Church, calls himself a Never Trump Republican but remains committed to the party to, in part, “help drive out the crackpots.” He, too, is undecided: He is considering voting for McCormick, who tried but failed to win Trump’s endorsement.

“I want to support the Romneys of the world, the reasonable leaders, the ones who attracted me to begin with,” Huddleston said. “Now I’m looking to find people like that. All the other voices are drowning them out.”

Some Republican voters said they had tried to ignore the spate of attack ads on television from McCormick and Dr. Oz, who spent millions of their own wealth on the race. The backlash against the Oz and McCormick ads seemed to benefit Ms. Barnette, who has spent less than $200,000 on her campaign.

“It’s just every moment and nothing about what they say they’re going to do or how they’re going to help people,” said Jeannie Gsell, 70, who lives in Greensburg, about 30 miles east of Pittsburgh.

In 2020, Ms. Gsell, a registered Republican, voted for President Biden, after some convincing by her liberal daughter. But she said she was disappointed in her time in the White House. She plans to vote in Tuesday’s Republican primary, but she is still undecided. She said that she would decide who she finds more sincere.

“People should go to Washington to take care of ordinary people’s priorities, not to take care of themselves and become richer or more famous,” said Ms. Gsell.

In downtown Butler, a working-class town north of Pittsburgh, Brittney Meehan, a 34-year-old waitress, said the two biggest issues for her were “guns and weed, two that don’t usually go together.”

Ms. Meehan said she was “absolutely not convinced to vote Republican”, citing her commitment to supporting both gun rights and abortion rights. “What I want is a real person, not people who are on that level, but who are just in contact as human beings,” she added.

Ms Meehan said she wanted “people to just listen when they disagree”, a sentiment echoed by Mr Huddleston, the minister at Laughlintown.

“I want to have honesty and respect, is that really so impossible now?” Mr. Huddleston said as he sat in the pews at church one recent afternoon.

He thinks of voters like his next-door neighbor, Mr. Testa, and wonders what will become of moderate Republicans like him. The two men know each other but have not directly discussed politics. He noticed the many bumper stickers of his neighbor. One of them says: “I took an oath to protect against foreigners and nationals.” He wondered about the meaning. For now, though, he said, “I haven’t felt asking was neighborly.”

Leave a Comment