By Jarrett Renshaw
PHILADELPHIA -Former President Donald Trump is nowhere to be seen in Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate race, but he nonetheless is shaping the election as Republican candidates vie for his support and the state party considers skipping an endorsement to avoid being at odds with him.
Trump has not revealed whether he will back any of the current candidates in the contest that could decide control of Congress in November’s midterm elections.
The crowded Republican field vying to replace retiring Senator Pat Toomey includes several contenders with connections to the former president: Carla Sands, former ambassador to Denmark under Trump; celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, a Trump friend; and hedge fund CEO David McCormick, whose wife served in the Trump administration.
Trump’s silence has left the state party considering the rare – and perhaps unprecedented – step of not endorsing a candidate in the state’s marquee race for fear of not moving in step with Trump, sources told Reuters.
Pennsylvania’s primary race illustrates how Trump has maintained his iron grip on the Republican Party as he aims to play king-maker in the midterm elections ahead of a possible 2024 presidential bid.
He so far appears to be succeeding in the battleground state even after losing his 2020 re-election effort, in part due to President Joe Biden’s win there, and pushing false voting-fraud concerns.
Trump’s long shadow in Pennsylvania leaves the state Republican Party struggling to maintain its power. It is unsure how to proceed with its endorsement, which this year would be given in early February and has traditionally been a major asset to a candidate.
In interviews, 25 state party committee members and Republican Party officials in Pennsylvania said they are reluctant to back one Senate candidate. They cited both the large field of 12 candidates and the possibility that Trump might eventually endorse a different contender.
Some said they would prefer to endorse multiple candidates to preserve the committee’s influence, while helping ensure they support a Trump candidate if he decides to engage. No party official could recall an instance when the party endorsed a slate of candidates for a single race.
The state party did not reply to requests for comment.
“Trump is looming over this whole thing. Everyone knows if Trump comes out and endorses a candidate, then all bets are off,” said Val Biancaniello, a Republican organizer.
In regional caucuses ahead of a state meeting, members have overwhelmingly voted against endorsements, according to results seen by Reuters.
Frank Schiefer, a Republican state committeeman from western Pennsylvania, said he will vote against endorsing a Senate candidate. A Trump endorsement might have swayed him to act otherwise, he said.
“It certainly would’ve changed how I approached it, but it’s not the only factor,” Schiefer said.
McCormick jumped into the race this month and has recruited a number of people from Trump’s orbit to serve as advisers. The Oz campaign did not respond to questions about the endorsements but noted his “long-standing” relationship with Trump. Sands’ and McCormick’s campaigns did not respond to requests for comment.
Real estate developer Jeff Bartos has strong support within the state’s Republican Party but lacks the Trump ties of some of his rivals.
Trump is expected to withhold making an endorsement until he has a clearer idea of who is most likely to win, according to two sources familiar with his thinking.
The former president remains stung by his first foray into the race, having backed Sean Parnell only to see him drop out in November amid allegations that he abused his wife.
The sources said Trump wants to avoid any more embarrassing setbacks in a state considered critical if he runs for president again. Trump spokesman Tyler Budowich did not respond to requests for comment.
The primary election is slated for May but is expected to be postponed due to delays in finalizing new congressional and state district maps. Democrats have their own large field of Senate candidates and hope the Republican primary produces a Trump-aligned candidate who will have a harder time appealing to moderate voters.
With no signal from Trump on his intentions, state party committee member Lee Snover said she has been asking each Senate candidate how much they talk to the former president for a sense of whether they might win his favor.
“I sure wish Trump would just endorse,” said Snover, also the chair of the Northampton County Republican Party. “It would make this whole thing a lot easier.”
(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Osterman)