In an effort to shift his U.S. Senate campaign into a higher gear, Congressman Lou Barletta is in Pittsburgh Tuesday and Wednesday, with a bus sojourn his campaign calls the “Red, White and Lou” tour. And as he sought to raise his profile just three months from the election, he answered questions from 90.5 WESA about the campaign, Donald Trump's economic policies, and his ties to a controversial Trump ally.
“It’s critically important that we do well in southwestern PA,” Barletta said at Trafford’s Hamill Manufacturing, the site of his first Pittsburgh-area stop Tuesday afternoon. “We’re going to be out here for quite awhile.” Voters here, he said, were “blue-collar people who understand what we need to do: putting Pennsylvanians first.”
Barletta didn’t get to do much retail politicking in his first stop: His bus arrived half an hour late, just as workers at the precision-manufacturing plant were wrapping up their shift. Most paid little notice to the vehicle as they walked past, and Barletta toured the plant with owner Jeff Kelly through a mostly empty plant.
Barletta, a Congressman from Hazleton in the northeastern part of the state, easily beat Beaver County state Rep. Jim Christiana in the Republican primary this spring. His stop in Trafford was the first of four in the region slated for Tuesday and Wednesday. The other stops -- which include the Butler County Fair as well as stops in New Castle and Beaver -- focus on the kind of rural and post-industrial communities that helped Donald Trump win the state in 2016.
Barletta was an early Trump supporter, and the bus tour follows a campaign rally Trump held on his behalf last week. Trump called Barletta "smart" and "strong" at the event and said, "He loves this state."
As he is wont to do, Trump also caused a stir at the event, among other things for claiming that US Steel had opened several new mills. While the company has restarted two blast furnaces in Illinois, it has not built new plants in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. But Barletta said such gains were still possible.
Trump “has empowered the American worker and American business through the tax cuts [a]nd even using the tariffs to tell these other countries we believe in fair trade when it’s fair to the American people too," he said. "We haven't had a president like that in a long time, that's willing to stand up in front of the whole world, on the world stage, under criticism, and say, 'I'm going to put America first.'"
Kelly, whose 120 employees primarily work on military contracts, told Barletta the firm was little affected by tariffs – a controversial aspect of Trump's aggressive trade policy. But he said he was concerned about China’s theft of intellectual property, and said a key challenge was attracting younger workers. “The problem is the kids have no idea about manufacturing,” he said.
“For so long, we’ve almost forced kids – ‘you’ve got to go to college,’” Barletta replied, who also lamented that there was “so much focus on Russia," given the Chinese threat.
Trump and Barletta rose to prominence with calls to rein in immigration. As mayor of Hazelton, Barletta drew national headlines by championing a controversial ordinance that barred employers and landlords from doing business with undocumented immigrants.
The ordinance, which was ultimately thrown out by a federal court, was one of a number of such ordinances defended by Kris Kobach, a Trump ally. Pro Publica recently reported that Kobach earned $800,000 litigating on behalf of such causes, even as towns he represented were left to pay court costs after losing lawsuits. Hazelton alone paid $1.4 million in costs, Pro Publica reported
Barletta pushed back on the Pro Publica story. “Why do we resent when somebody makes money or is successful? Why have we made capitalism a dirty word again? .... Kris Kobach might be one of the smartest people I have ever met when it comes to dealing with illegal immigration. He’s a scholar. Why would you not want somebody to represent you like that?”
Barletta says the cost of inaction would have been even steeper. “How could you possibly survive when you had 50 percent more people taking services but not paying taxes?”
The bus tour caps a summer that has shown the challenges Barletta faces. Democratic incumbent Bob Casey enjoys a 7-to-1 financial advantage over the Barletta campaign, and a Franklin & Marshall College poll in June showed Barletta trailing Casey by 17 points. The poll found that two voters in three said they didn't know enough about Barletta to have an opinion of him -- a percentage unchanged since last fall. And last week, a New York Times dispatch from Westmoreland County reported "that dozens of Trump supporters there are only vaguely aware of Mr. Barletta."
Then again, many 2016 polls -- including Franklin & Marshall itself -- showed Hillary Clinton winning Pennsylvania, right up until Trump carried the state.
“Where people know him and Casey, it’s very close,” Barletta campaign manager Jon Anzur. “And in the western part of the state, people are getting to know him.” He said he anticipated Trump could make more appearances on Barletta’s behalf -- and would likely do so in the western part of the state.