Jonathan Tamari, Anna Orso and William Bender The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
PHILADELPHIA — Three presidents are sweeping through Pennsylvania Saturday, aiming to rally their supporters in the closing stretch before Tuesday’s election and signaling the national weight of the state’s races for governor, U.S. Senate, and U.S. House.
Former President Barack Obama joined Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Lt. Gov. John Fetterman before some 7,500 supporters in Pittsburgh in the morning. Both then came to Philadelphia for an afternoon event with President Joe Biden and Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor.
Former President Donald Trump will cap off the busy day in Westmoreland County, in southwestern Pennsylvania, where he will rally at night with the GOP gubernatorial nominee, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, and U.S. Senate nominee Mehmet Oz.
Huge lines formed outside the events in both Westmoreland and Philadelphia.
Kicking off the Philadelphia event, Biden warned of rising political violence and Republican denialism over the lawful 2020 election results.
“Democracy is literally on the ballot, and this is a defining moment of the nation,” he said.
Biden recited a list of his administration’s accomplishments, including a historic infrastructure investment, a jobs boom, a $35 cap on insulin prices, and a bipartisan gun safety law. Among the loudest cheers came for his sweeping student debt reduction.
He added that if Democrats can elect Fetterman to the Senate and hold the House, he could pass to ban assault weapons and codify the federal abortion rights that were overturned by the Supreme Court. (Both would still be a long shot, because Democrats would have to hold the House and have enough Senate votes to eliminate the filibuster).
“Oz won’t do a thing about guns,” Biden said to loud cheers.
“Elect John Fetterman to the Senate, please,” he said.
As he often does, Biden called Philadelphia “a place that defines the soul of the nation” and implored the crowd to vote, saying “the power of America is in your hands.”
Audience members responded, “That’s right!”
The Trump rally
In Latrobe, the line for Trump’s rally at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport stretched for a quarter-mile.
Hundreds of pro-Trump flags snapped in unison in 17 mph winds under an ominous cloud-filled sky. AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” blasted on the speakers.
A recording of Trump’s booming voice echoed over the grounds, telling the arriving crowd that the United States is a “nation in decline.” A few people chugged White Claws in porta potties.
When Mastriano spoke, wearing a Philadelphia Phillies hat in western Pennsylvania, a double rainbow formed over the crowd.
“We claim that in Jesus’ name,” he said, speaking a couple hours before Trump was scheduled to appear.
Mastriano accused Shapiro of failing to fight crime as attorney general.
“I don’t know why he’s not defending the people of Philadelphia,” Mastriano said, “Especially suffering are Latino Americans, African Americans, and he’s turned his back on them.”
But throughout his speech he returned to issues around transgender people, repeatedly bringing up rules around bathrooms and sports.
Shapiro “thinks he’s a champion of women’s rights,” Mastriano said. “Can he even define what a woman is?”
Outside, bumper stickers on cars referred to false claims that the 2020 election was stolen: “Biden Didn’t Win, Everyone Knows That” read one sign on an RV.
There appeared to be significant support for Mastriano.
“I believe he’s an honest guy,” said Mike McGuirk, of Johnstown, who was wearing a Mastriano pin.
He stood at the back of the line with his wife, Peg. He said he was most concerned with crime and inflation, and believed that Shapiro had not done enough to combat the drug problem in Philadelphia and elsewhere.
“He’s a good Christian family man who wants to have a country left for his children and grandchildren,” Peg McGuirk said of Mastriano.
Rachael Morris, who home schools her two children in Chester County, said she first met Mastriano during a 2020 Harrisburg rally opposing coronavirus restrictions.
“He was the only legislator out there with us. People were out of work,” Morris said. “Other legislators were unwilling to speak to us. He was our voice. That’s why we love him.”
In Philadelphia, a parade of local officials spoke to more than 1,000 spectators waiting in the Liacouras Center Saturday afternoon for more than two hours before the main events. College students danced to the song “Shots,” speakers stood in front of three massive American flags, and the crowd was dotted with red Phillies hats.
The crowd roared when state Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Democrat from West Philadelphia, rattled off the policy differences between Fetterman and Oz, and then ended with, “John Fetterman lives in Pennsylvania, and Oz don’t.”
On the floor of the arena, Gini George looked up and held her fist in the air. The 45-year-old from Northeast Philadelphia was sporting a Fetterman pin, and said she supports the lieutenant governor because she can identify with him: Her mother has had two strokes. And she had chronic pain as a result of Lyme disease for 15 years.
She said she isn’t concerned about Fetterman’s health, and wasn’t bothered by his halting debate performance last month.
“I know what it’s like to be looked at as if you’re not a member of society,” she said. “The fact that he got up there gives disabled people hope and a voice.”
George said she plans to vote for Democrats up and down the ticket Tuesday and is most concerned about abortion access and other social issues.
But she was clear about who brought her out to the arena this weekend.
“I love Obama so much,” she gushed. “Have you seen his rallies? He speaks the truth. And I love him.”
Several elected officials invoked race, including Shapiro’s running mate, state Rep. Austin Davis, who would be the state’s first Black lieutenant governor.
He elicited loud boos when he told the crowd Mastriano had once been photographed donning Confederate military garb. The uniform, Davis said, “stands for the enslavement of Black and brown people.”
“He has showed us time and time again with his own words and actions that he’s unfit to serve as a senator in the General Assembly, let alone as our governor,” Davis said.
The stakes of Pennsylvania’s elections
Obama and Trump’s visits are in party strongholds where the political leaders will be aiming to juice turnout on another Pennsylvania election day with sweeping consequences.
The Pennsylvania governor’s race could determine the future of abortions right and voting laws in the country’s fifth most populous state — and determine if Mastriano, an avid election denier, appoints the secretary of state who oversees the state’s elections in 2024, when it could again be a pivotal presidential battleground.
The neck-and-neck Senate race, meanwhile, could decide control of the chamber, and with it significant influence over legislation and Biden appointments, including if any openings arise on the Supreme Court. That contest has gained even more importance as recent trends have made Republicans heavy favorites to win the U.S. House, leaving the Senate as Democrats’ last hope for retaining a foothold in Congress.
Several of Pennsylvania’s House races could help decide the margins in that chamber as the GOP appears poised to take control. Both parties are hoping a late push by their party’s most prominent figures can rally any voters who might be thinking about staying home.
The events Saturday will also foreshadow the likelihood of another Trump run for president, and a potential rematch with Biden, in 2024. Trump is reportedly considering launching his third run for the White House as soon as this month.
But much of the immediate focus is likely to fall on the hugely expensive Senate contest, where polls show barely any separation between Fetterman and Oz.
The rallies could energize solid partisans, but also carry some political risks. Trump is wildly popular with Republicans, but has proven to be toxic with swing voters and suburban moderates — the group Oz has been wooing for months.
And while most midterm elections focus on the party in power, Democrats worried about Biden’s poor approval ratings are glad to turn attention on the former president. They’d prefer the vote to be seen as a choice between Biden and Trump, rather than a referendum on the unpopular sitting president.
Biden, too, inspires antipathy from many voters, though he has taken a special pride in campaigning in Pennsylvania, his birthplace, and there’s likely no avoiding the sitting president being a focal point in the election.
Obama’s presence signals how the former president may retain more luster than the one currently presiding over sky-high inflation.
Obama’s visits to Pittsburgh and Philadelphia come as Democrats aim to lift turnout in those deep blue cities, particularly among Black voters who form the backbone of the party’s support.
Shapiro has held substantial leads in public polling over Mastriano, though there are still fresh memories of significant polling misses in Pennsylvania.
House races in northeastern Pennsylvania, the Lehigh Valley, and Pittsburgh and its suburbs are also going down to the wire.
Obama in Pittsburgh
In the morning, Obama, seeking to energize core Democratic voters before Tuesday’s election, told the Pittsburgh crowd that despite the divisiveness and anger of the country’s politics, they can’t afford to sit out.
He framed the election as a choice between Republican who oppose abortion rights, who have pledged to investigate Biden, and who oppose gun safety laws and Democrats who have passed legislation to rebuild infrastructure, fight climate change and lower prescription drug costs. And Obama cast Oz as a slick talker “looking out for himself,” comparing his political rhetoric to the miracle cures he used to promote on TV.
“John’s stroke did not change who he is, it didn’t change what he cares about. It didn’t change his values, his heart, his fight. It doesn’t change who he will represent when he gets to the United States Senate. He’ll represent you, and that’s what you deserve,” Obama said.
Fetterman pledged to “be that 51st vote to eliminate the filibuster, to raise the minimum wage,” and to support the pro-union PRO Act, protect Medicare and Social Security, preserve same-sex marriage, and codify the abortion rights previously enshrined by Roe v. Wade.
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