Over the weekend, your reporter headed to Northeast Pennsylvania for former president Donald Trump’s first rally since the FBI searched his home in Mar-a-Lago in Wilkes-Barre.
Shortly before that, The Independent went to a Pennsylvania Democratic Party office opening in Scranton– aptly located on Biden street, given the president’s Scranton roots–with Attorney General Josh Shapiro, Democrats’ nominee for governor.
Pennsylvania is, of course, one of the biggest battlegrounds. Mr Trump notably filed more than 40 lawsuits in Pennsylvania during the 2020 election to dispute the results, which Mr Shapiro successfully fought back, making him a big target during the rally. One of Trump’s biggest supporters in the Pennsylvania Republican Party, state Senator Doug Mastriano — who paid for buses to come to Washington on January 6 — is running against Mr Shapiro.
Here are five takeaways from The Independent’s whirlwind 4-hour trip in Northeastern Pennsylvania(Cheesesteaks and Italian food not included):
Trump is using Mar-a-Lago as a political rallying cry.
Unsurprisingly, the raid at Mar-a-Lago didn’t do anything to blunt the former president’s bluster. If anything, he delivered one of his most bellicose speeches I have heard in a long time.
“This egregious abuse of the law is going to produce a backlash the likes of which nobody has ever seen before,” he told the crowd.
Much of the crowd gave some of its loudest applause lines when he talked about the search at Mar-a-Lago. Incidentally, Mr Trump brought his attorney Christina Bobb along for the rally as well, showing he clearly sees this as an elaborate show with multiple players as if it were still an episode of The Apprentice and he’s the main character. The fact he brought Bobb to his rally also shows that he likely approves of the way she has acquitted herself on television despite being the subject of much mockery.
Trump lets his hatred of Fetterman fly, but it doesn’t help Dr Oz.
One of the most unhinged parts of the rally came when Mr Trump said that Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat, wore “dirty, dirty, dirty sweatsuits and may dress like a teenager getting high in his parents basement.” He then went a step further, saying Mr Fetterman “supports taxpayer funded drug dens and the complete decriminalization of illegal drugs, including heroin, cocaine, crystal meth and ultra lethal fentanyl, and by the way, he takes them himself.”
Just like how Mr Trump despises Mr Shapiro for beating him in court, Mr Fetterman has a way of getting in the former president’s goat given that he frequently pushed back on Mr Trump’s claims of voter fraud in 2020. That served as a template for the Democrat’s unrelenting pummeling of Dr Oz on social media for hailing from neighboring New Jersey. But it hasn’t helped his preferred Senate candidate, physician and television host Mehmet Oz, whom Mr Trump endorsed in the primary.
Dr Oz didn’t receive nearly as much applause as the former president or even Mr Mastriano during the rally, either during his solo speech or when he joined Mr Trump.
At one point during Mr Trump’s speech, one attendee yelled “He’s a RINO,” which Marleen Laska, who was in the audience wearing a Mastriano shirt, repeated when we spoke after the rally. “I do not trust that he’s going to do the right thing for America, for America first,” she told me, despite the fact she said she planned to vote for Dr Oz. “I have to vote for him because, you know, we need to get at least a RINO as opposed to Fetterman.”
Republicans want to respond to hit Democrats on crime, and Democrats respond in kind.
Mr Trump’s tirade about Mr Fetterman’s alleged drug use was part of his larger tear about crime. Mr Trump talked about the need to “Leave our police alone”–of course, saying this while he slammed the Justice Department. Mr Trump also described a litany of various crimes committed in the Philadelphia area, which Val Biancaniello, a former Trump delegate said could be an organizing issue for Republicans.
“That is, it is something that is on the minds of a lot of Pennsylvanians, especially the ones living in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas,” she said.
Similarly, Dr Oz’s campaign has hit Mr Fetterman for hiring Lee and Dennis Horton, who had been convicted for second-degree murder working on his campaign. In 2020, the state’s pardon board–led by Mr Fetterman–recommended commuting their sentence given the fact they likely did not know that a person they had picked up in 1993 was a murderer. Mr Fetterman’s campaign has called it a “sad and desperate smear.”
Incidentally, when I was traveling to Wilkes-Barre through the Lehigh County area by bus, I caught a sign of Biden blasting him on “Defund the Police,” despite the fact Mr Biden has called for police funding.
Similarly, at the Scranton event, Mr Shapiro talked about public safety, saying he planned to hire more than 2,000 police officers, “so people are safe and feel safe” when they see law enforcement, which was met with rapturous applause.
Dancing around Dobbs
The Dobbs v Jackson ruling has proven incredibly unpopular for Republicans nationwide, with Democrats overperforming in numerous special elections, most recently flipping Alaska’s sole congressional seat last week for the first time in 49 years. Mr Trump mentioned abortion. A few times, noting how he supported exceptions but blasted Democrats.
While Mr Trump said he supported exceptions, he accused Mr Shapiro supports abortion a bill that would allow abortion “ right through the ninth month and beyond.”
“The states will make the decision by the way, the states will make the decision and in Pennsylvania, I have a feeling that decision will be an interesting decision but it’s up to the states,” he said. But absent from Mr Trump’s words was the reason why abortion would now be left up to the states, which is the fact Dobbs v Jackson overturned the enshrined right to an abortion in Roe v Wade. That in turned was triggered by Mr Trump’s nomination of Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch.