LAUGHLINTOWN, Pa. — Michael Testa, 51, an Army veteran and handyman, drives a van covered in stickers that read “Trump Won.”
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 says he is one of millions who believe the 2020 election was stolen from the former president.
But as he sat on his porch in Laughlintown, a small borough in Westmoreland County outside Pittsburgh that was once home to the Mellon family fortune, he was undecided about which candidate to vote for in the Republican primary on Tuesday. of Pennsylvania for the Senate. He has reservations about supporting Mehmet Oz, the famous doctor Mr. Trump has endorsed.
“I will not be someone who does something just because someone says it, even if that person is Trump,” Mr. Testa said.
Like other Republican primaries across the country, the Pennsylvania Senate race is testing how strong Mr. Trump’s hold remains on the party. But unlike other primaries this year, the Senate contest in Pennsylvania has suddenly pivoted to something else — a case study in whether the movement created by Mr. Trump remains under his control.
In interviews with more than two dozen Republican voters in western Pennsylvania, many echoed Mr. Testa’s ambivalence and uncertainty about Dr. Oz — despite Mr. Trump, they view him with suspicion, call him “too Hollywood” and question his ties to the state. Those Republicans, including Mr. Testa, said they would rather vote or plan to vote for Kathy Barnette, the far-right author and conservative media commentator who surged in the polls on a shoestring budget.
In a race that could determine Senate control, many Republicans in the state find themselves deeply devoted to Mr. Trump but, at the same time, less swayed by his advice. Trumpism, as Ms. Barnette herself said on the campaign trail, is bigger than Trump.
Many voters said they were choosing who they thought would realize Mr. Trump’s ideals, even though they and the former president disagreed on who could best achieve them. And the interviews showed how effectively Ms Barnette, who has never held public office, used the story of her life as a poor black child in the South to connect with white working-class voters in western Pennsylvania. At events and in her advertisements, 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 supported ‘that black woman’. Those who said they were voting for her said they were unaware or unbothered by her history of homophobia and anti-muslim views. But her strong anti-abortion beliefs – Ms Barnette calls herself a “by-product of rape” – have been a key part of her appeal to white conservatives.
“I love what she represents,” said Dolores Mrozinski, 83, who first watched Ms Barnette on the Christian Television Network and was immediately impressed. “She’s no frills and the real thing.”
Understanding the Pennsylvania Primary Election
The crucial swing state will hold its primary on May 17, with key races for a U.S. Senate seat and the governorship.
Years ago, Mrs. Mrozinski and her daughter, Janey Mrozinski, a 62-year-old physiotherapist, watched Dr. Oz on television and even admired him. Now, the elder Mrs. Mrozinski said, “he just doesn’t seem authentic.”
“I don’t even know if he really lives in Pennsylvania,” she said, referring to Dr. Oz’s long history, up to recent years, of living and voting in New Jersey. “He looks more Hollywood than here and that doesn’t impress me.”
His daughter added: ‘Looks like he’s had a facelift.’ On the other hand, David McCormick, a former hedge fund executive who is also running for the primary, was simply, she said, “too, 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 leading candidates have each tried to align themselves closely with Mr. Trump and promote their conservative credentials. In the tight competition between the main contenders – Dr. Oz, Mrs. Barnette and Mr. McCormick – all three have strived to present themselves as the true MAGA warrior.
Some voters have clearly decided on who they believe to be the most authentic. But others still decide.
A look at John Artzberger’s body shop along Highway 8 in Butler County clearly shows his political leanings: a “Let’s Go Brandon” flag flies from the shop marquee, and the Trump’s paraphernalia covers a large wall near the entrance. When a client asked him to place a Barnette lawn sign in front, he didn’t hesitate to agree. Still, the sign was just a sign – he said he was undecided and considered voting for Ms Barnette or Dr Oz.
“She’s 100 per cent on our side – close the border, pro-life,” Mr Artzberger, 68, said of Ms Barnette. “If she gets it, she will be for the people.” Like many other Butler County Republicans, Mr. Artzberger views Dr. Oz’s past 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 changed, so maybe he changed too.”
In Laughlintown, County Westmoreland, it takes about 10 steps from the porch of Mr. Testa’s former craftsman to the front doors of the small brick church next door. Within that short distance lies a glimpse of the Republican Party’s identity crisis.
Jonathan Huddleston, 48, a Christian church minister from Laughlintown, calls himself a Never-Trump Republican but remains committed to the party to, in part, “help vote the fools out”. He, too, is undecided – he is considering voting for Mr 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 got me in the first place,” Huddleston said. “Now I’m looking to find people like that. All the other voices drown them out.
Some Republican voters said they tried to ignore the deluge of attack ads on TV from Mr McCormick and Dr Oz, who each spent millions of their own fortunes in the race. The backlash against the Oz and McCormick ads appeared to benefit Ms Barnette, who spent less than $200,000 on her campaign.
Understanding the 2022 midterm elections
Why are these milestones so important? This year’s races could tip the balance of power in Congress toward Republicans, hampering President Biden’s agenda for the second half of his term. They will also test former President Donald J. Trump’s role as a GOP kingmaker. Here’s what you need to know:
“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. east of Pittsburgh.
In 2020, Ms. Gsell, a registered Republican, voted for President Biden, after being persuaded by her liberal daughter. But she said she was disappointed with her time in the White House. She plans to vote in Tuesday’s Republican primary but is still undecided. She said she would make up her mind by deciding who she finds most 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,” Ms. Gsell said.
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 go usually not together”.
Ms Meehan said she was ‘not absolutely 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 just in touch as human beings,” she added.
Ms Meehan said she wanted ‘people to just agree when they disagree’, a sentiment shared by Mr Huddleston, the minister for Laughlintown.
“I want to have honesty and respect, is it really that impossible now?” said Mr Huddleston as he sat in the pews of the church one recent afternoon.
He thinks of voters like his neighbor Mr. Testa and wonders what will become of moderate Republicans like him. The two men know each other, but they have not spoken directly about politics. He noticed his neighbor’s numerous bumper stickers. One of them reads: “I have taken an oath to protect against foreigners and nationals.” He wondered about the meaning. For now, however, he said, “I didn’t feel it was the right thing for the neighbor to ask.”