CAMP HILL — If Donald Trump was the great uniter for Democrats in 2020, conservatives believe Tom Wolf will play the same role for them in upcoming elections.
Eight hopefuls for Guv and three for U.S. Senate took the stage at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, a long-running confab of movement activists, or met with them at events later Friday evening.
The two-day gathering in the Harrisburg region included panels discussing a wide-range of culture war battlegrounds including critical race theory, big tech, transgender athletes and more. But a majority of the conversations circled back to their anger with PA’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
COVID-19 restrictions are winding down and Gov. Wolf won’t be on the ballot in 2022, but a range of participants — from pro-Trump diehards to center-right Republicans — framed their message around both.
Voters have sent mixed messages about Wolf. He cruised to a second term in 2018 by defeating state Sen. Scott Wagner, a favorite of the PLC crowd, by 17 points. However, voters in the May primary approved amendments to reign in a governor’s emergency powers – a clear win for Wolf’s critics.
Here is the rundown of the messages shared by the potential 2022 statewide candidates during the conference that drew just under 700 attendees.
2022 Gubernatorial Hopefuls
- 75 votes: State Sen. Doug Mastriano
- 46 votes: former Congressman Lou Barletta (R-Luzerne)
- 28 votes: Congressman Dan Meuser (R-Luzerne)
- 22 votes: former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain
- 18 votes: GOP consultant Charlie Gerow
- 9 votes: State Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie)
The state Senator from Franklin County emerged as one of the earliest outspoken voices in the conservative wing of the party to oppose Gov. Tom Wolf’s restrictions in response to combating the spread of COVID-19 in the commonwealth.
Mastriano, who was the first potential statewide hopeful to address the conference, took a victory lap during his 15 minute address over the state legislature voting to terminate Wolf’s COVID-19 emergency declaration.
“Wasn’t yesterday a great day in Pennsylvania,” Mastriano asked the crowd to an applause. “We did it. We did it together.”
“It was a long fight, took a lot longer than we all imagined, but wow,” he continued.
Mastriano accused Wolf, Lt. Governor John Fetterman, and former PA Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, of “disappearing” during the pandemic and brought a milk carton on stage as a prop saying that they were “missing in action.”
He also set his sights on Dr. Anthony Fauci, who he referred to as “Lord Fauci” and “a false god,” President Joe Biden, and the media over the coronavirus pandemic.
While Mastriano’s address mainly centered around COVID-19, he also spent time casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election in Pennsylvania.
“We have no choice in Pennsylvania, but to do a forensic audit,” Mastriano said, followed by applause.
Earlier this month, Mastriano and two other GOP state lawmakers visited Maricopa County, Arizona, to view their “audit” process.
He questioned Democrats, who opposed the “forensic audit,” which is also not universally supported among Republicans.
He also took not-so-subtle shots at the rest of the field for questioning their commitment to the cause by asking if they were present during a state Senate hearing in November in Gettysburg about election fraud.
Mastriano, who voted for Act 77, pinned the blame on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court over how it was enacted and said it needs to be repealed, while other measures need to be enacted for future elections.
Mastriano won the PLC straw poll for Governor by tallying 75 votes. Former Congressman Lou Barletta (R-Luzerne) finished in second place with 46 votes, followed by Congressman Dan Meuser (R-Luzerne) with 28 votes, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain with 22 votes, GOP consultant Charlie Gerow with 18 votes, and state Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie) with 9 votes.
The state Senator from Lancaster County, who launched an exploratory committee for Governor earlier in the week, was tasked with discussing “Excellence in Education for All.”
Martin, who serves as the chair of the Senate Education Committee, criticized Pennsylvania’s Department of Education over its response to the coronavirus pandemic and lauded how some Catholic and charter schools reacted.
He also stressed the need for “school choice” during his 15 minute address to the conference and blasted Wolf for not backing it. Martin also said that having a strong education system is a way for the commonwealth to prosper.
“I could sit up here and talk about a million different issues on things we need to turn around in Pennsylvania, but I’m only supposed to talk about education,” Martin said. “I’m going to stick to that.”
“But this is one of the key things,” Martin continued. “When you look to grow a state, to attract investment and new employers and new families and new hope to have move here – having a world class education system all is so critically important to do that.”
Martin also delivered a brief address during the “meet the candidates mixer” on Friday night, where he continued to criticize Wolf on education, but also claimed that the state wasn’t fully capitalizing on energy production.
He name-checked Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as an example of a governor to imitate, adding that if he decides to run for governor, he’d have a working relationship with the legislature.
“We need true executive leadership that understands the balance of powers with the legislature and have a team approach,” Martin said.
Martin was not included in the PLC straw poll for governor.
The Erie County state Senator, who launched an exploratory committee for Governor earlier that same day, didn’t deliver a speech to the full convention, but did address the crowd on Friday night at the “meet the candidates mixer.”
While much of the speeches during the conference promoted a message shared from the most conservative wing of the party, Laughlin called for “common sense propositions.”
“If we are going to get Pennsylvania back on track, we need to acknowledge how destructive blind ideology can be,” Laughlin said. “In the past year, this fixation on rules-over-reason has left us struggling here in Pennsylvania.”
Laughlin specifically railed against Wolf’s COVID-19 restrictions.
“The other side not only lacks common sense. It lacks common decency,” Laughlin said. “They act as if power alone determines right and wrong.”
He also claimed that Democrats were turning everything into a “wokeness status competition.”
He then cited words from Russell Kirk and Ronald Reagan as proof that an “all-or-nothing” strategy was “not a workable” one for the party in the upcoming election if they are to recapture the governor’s mansion.
The communications executive, who is weighing a run for Governor, had a prior commitment and couldn’t attend the conference, but Kevin Harley, from Quantum Communications delivered a brief, one minute speech on his behalf during Friday night’s “meet the candidates mixer.”
Harley touted Gerow’s bonafides in GOP politics by naming his previous roles as a campaign aide to President Ronald Reagan’s campaign, Vice President of CPAC, being one of the founders of PLC, and as a “regular fixture in national media” defending conservative policies.
He said that Gerow is “a vanguard in the conservative movement.”
“The one thing he told me to leave you with this,” Harley said. “Is that Charlie will be Josh Shapiro’s worst nightmare and be on the lookout for an announcement very soon.”
In the parking lot, papers were left on car windshields that highlighted Gerow’s experience.
Gerow will formally launch his campaign for governor on Thursday.
Dr. Nche Zama
The renowned cardiothoracic surgeon, who launched his campaign for Governor in May, didn’t speak to the full convention, but addressed the crowd on Friday night at the “meet the candidates mixer.”
Highlighting his experience as a doctor, he gave an analogy of someone passing out and needing CPR.
“That’s what’s happening to our great state of Pennsylvania,” Zama said. “It just had a cardiac arrest.”
“Pennsylvania is dying,” Zama said.
He specifically said the state was “failing” in education, health care, and more.
The gubernatorial hopeful also criticized Wolf’s response to the coronavirus pandemic by saying that not only did people die as a result of COVID-19, but so did many businesses across the commonwealth.
Zama, an immigrant from Cameroon, also claimed that some in the United States want to make the country “communist” and “socialist,” which he believes would result in the state and nation turning into Venezuela.
Zama was not included in the PLC straw poll for governor.
The former U.S. Attorney during then-President Donald Trump’s administration, who launched a political action committee in March, was assigned to talk about “Freedom and the Rule of Law” during the conference.
McSwain promoted his record as U.S. Attorney in Pennsylvania’s Eastern District and “enforcing the law” in Philadelphia.
“If you want to enforce the law in Philadelphia, people sometimes look at you a little sideways,” McSwain said. “I did my job. I had the audacity to put violent criminals in jail.”
“I had the audacity to put corrupt public officials in jail,” he continued. “I want to tell you about a little award I got for that.”
“I was given the award by the Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board,” McSwain said. “They voted me the #1 villain of 2020,” which was followed by applause.
His 15 minute address also included him using a slideshow to show images of Gov. Tom Wolf and Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who participated in rallies during last summer, which he dubbed the “summer of civil unrest in Philadelphia.”
“Here he is kneeling with his people,” McSwain said, about Krasner. “He’s cheering these people on during the summer of civil unrest.”
“He’s an individual who has presided over one of the worst increases in violent crime and shootings and homicides in Philadelphia history,” McSwain continued.
Krasner bested Democratic challenger Carlos Vega by 34 points during the May primary and is a heavy favorite against Republican Chuck Peruto in November.
McSwain criticized Wolf for marching during the peaceful protests during the summer of 2020, while businesses and schools were closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic. He called Wolf marching during the pandemic as “hypocrisy at its worst.”
McSwain also pinned Attorney General Josh Shapiro for “being nearly as bad as Krasner” and said that he never pushes back on him because “he’s terrified” and “a tool of the radical left.”
McSwain used two examples of individuals who participated in riots last summer that will face a mandatory minimum of 7 years in prison. He said that after word got out that people were being jailed for participating in riots in Philadelphia, that the riots didn’t persist and that it was proof that “enforcing the law works.”
The Luzerne County Congressman, who has been mulling a run for Governor for months, touched on a wide variety of topics during his 15-minute speech to the conference, but specifically made his thoughts known about Wolf’s administration.
“Here in Pennsylvania, we have a governor that is authoritarian in his style of governing,” Meuser said.
He accused Wolf of being someone who views himself as a ruler and someone who follows New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, seemingly linking the two for their response to the coronavirus pandemic.
He specifically pinpointed one state that he said Pennsylvania could be with different leadership.
“With the right Governor, Pennsylvania can be the next Texas,” Meuser said.
Meuser said that the state needs to be “more competitive” for attracting businesses and promoted his record from previously serving as the Secretary of the Department of Revenue during former Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration.
He also echoed a popular phrase often used by former President Donald Trump on the campaign trail.
“If I may borrow a phrase,” Meuser said. “It’s time to make Pennsylvania proud again, make Pennsylvania prosperous again, make Pennsylvania win again, and you know that last one.”
“Let’s make Pennsylvania great again,” Meuser said.
Sources close to Meuser tell PoliticsPA that he is expected to announce an official exploratory committee in the coming weeks.
Meuser also addressed the January 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C., which he described as “not a good day,” but said it was “much more of a horror” for what happened to cities across the state during riots last summer.
Meuser voted against H.R. 3233, which would have created a bipartisan commission to study the causes behind the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capital in Washington D.C.
Meuser endorsed state Rep. Seth Grove’s election integrity bill and accused PA’s Secretary of State, “condoned by” Wolf and Shapiro of “unlawful and unconstitutional actions” during the 2020 election.
He reiterated a similar message during shorter speech during Friday night’s “meet the candidates mixer” while also stressing the importance of winning upcoming judicial races and flipping the U.S. House in 2022.
Meuser also name-checked DeSantis, who is seen as a potential 2024 presidential hopeful, during his speech at the mixer.
The former Luzerne County congressman and 2018 U.S. Senate candidate, who launched his gubernatorial campaign in May, was present at the conference, but did not provide a speech on stage or at the candidates mixer on Friday evening.
2022 U.S. Senate Hopefuls
- 88 votes: Sean Parnell, combat veteran and former congressional candidate
- 68 votes: Jeff Bartos, a Montgomery County real estate developer who was the GOP Lt. Governor nominee in 2018
- 37 votes: Kathy Barnette, a veteran and conservative commentator who was the GOP nominee for Pennsylvania’s 4th congressional district in 2020
- 17 votes: former U.S. Ambassador Carla Sands
- 9 votes: undecided.
The combat veteran and former congressional candidate, who launched his campaign in May, didn’t deliver an address to the entire conference, but provided a speech during Friday night’s “meet the candidates mixer.”
Parnell detailed his near-death experience as a platoon leader serving in Afghanistan and said what he witnessed on the battlefield was proof that Americans can accomplish anything if they work together.
He juxtaposed his experience with war by saying that the fight for the nation is now happening in the United States.
“The fight for freedom is going to happen right here in the United States of America in 2021, leading into 2022,” Parnell said.
He pinned the blame on Democrats for the debt, the situation and the U.S.-Mexico border, and accused them of placing the 1st and 2nd Amendment “under attack.”
“If we won’t win the Senate in the state of Pennsylvania in 2022, all could be lost,” Parnell said.
“Win Pennsylvania,” Parnell said. “Save America.”
Parnell finished in first place in the U.S. Senate PLC 2021 straw poll for U.S. Senate with 88 votes. Jeff Bartos finished in second place with 68 votes, followed by Kathy Barnette, a conservative commentator and former GOP congressional candidate, with 37 votes, former U.S. Ambassador Carla Sands with 17 votes, and 9 undecided votes.
The Montgomery County real estate developer and former 2018 Lt. Governor nominee is seeking the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate next year, but also spent his 15 minute address blasting Wolf over his response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Bartos promoted the work that the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund, a nonprofit that he co-founded to aid small businesses and their employees in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and told the stories of how he saw small business owners impacted by the shutdowns.
“So a year ago, Gov. Wolf shut the state down,” Bartos said. “I quickly realized that small businesses in my community, the southeastern part of the state, were really going to struggle.”
“So, I acted,” Bartos said.
He highlighted three specific interactions through his work with the nonprofit with a plumber in Philadelphia, a coffee shop owner in Lancaster County, and a restaurant owner in Oil City as proof that he understood what those impacted by the pandemic were feeling.
While he detailed the difficult times faced by those in the Commonwealth during the pandemic, he painted an optimistic picture of the future by citing the results of the May 18 ballot referendum in the state to limit the governor’s power during emergency declarations as proof that the state is heading in a different direction.
“We will not be crushed,” Bartos said. “We will not be kept down, we will not live under an oppressive rule of one man or one woman’s sitting in a governor’s office in any state capitol, anywhere in the United States.”
“In the lead up to May 18th, I often said that the eyes of the nation were upon Pennsylvania, yet again,” Bartos said. “When it is written, when we win the Governor’s race and the Senate race in 2022, it will be written that the first shot in the battle to restore liberty and freedom was fired in Pennsylvania in May of 2021.”
The former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark during the Trump administration, who is currently exploring a run for U.S. Senate, didn’t provide an address to the entire convention, but did speak during the Friday night “meet the candidates mixer.”
Sands promoted her roots in Cumberland County, while promoting her record as Ambassador during Trump’s administration.
“As I worked as U.S. Ambassador in Denmark, I got things done,” Sands said.
She specifically cited receiving the U.S. Department of Defense’s highest Civilian Honor, the Medal for Distinguished Public Service, for her work to increase security in the Arctic region, opening a consulate in Greenland, and more.
“My accomplishments abroad, I want to bring them home,” Sands said. “And I want to work for the people of Pennsylvania, to be of service and to make sure that Pennsylvania comes first like America comes first.”
She said that Pennsylvania lacked “fearless leadership” that she could bring to the commonwealth and said the she would work to bring “energy dominance” and “energy security.”