Former President Donald Trump was back in Pennsylvania Saturday night, railing against President Joe Biden and the FBI as he rallied with GOP Senate nominee Mehmet Oz and State Sen. Doug Mastriano, the party’s nominee for governor.
It was a night that provided insight into Trump’s approach to the midterms, Oz and Mastriano’s standing with Trump supporters, and the GOP strategy for critical Pennsylvania races. Here are five takeaways on the night:
Trump’s rally was his first public opportunity to respond to President Joe Biden’s blistering Philadelphia speech on Thursday, when the sitting president labeled his predecessor and “MAGA Republicans” a threat to American democracy.
Trump seized on it, and signaled that Republicans plan to use their anger at Biden’s characterization as motivation.
It was “the most vicious, hateful, and divisive speech ever delivered by an American president, vilifying 75 million citizens,” Trump said as a crowd of thousands roared in approval.
Trump himself thrived on his slashing political style, and even as he complained about Biden’s tone Saturday described his political opponents as “sick” and “evil” and insulted their appearances. But he has a skill for channeling his supporters’ feelings that they’ve been disrespected by the political and media elite, and turning that anger into political energy.
He’s found his latest target.
The rally was seen as an opportunity for Trump to boost two of his endorsed allies. But they got little attention from the former president.
Oz and Mastriano could use the help — they’re trailing in some of the country’s most critical races. But after a very brief mention of the two at the start of his speech, Trump spent the next roughly 80 minutes talking almost entirely about his anger at Biden, the FBI search of his Florida home and his many grievances, old and new, including screeds against wind turbines and electric cars.
He did eventually bring Oz and Mastriano on stage, but over two hours of talk it was mostly Trump focused on Trump.
Trump is the most powerful figure within the GOP, but the party’s aims aren’t always the same as his.
Republicans in Pennsylvania have a long history of running against crime and Philadelphia, and they’re clearly ready to replicate that strategy this year.
Trump called Philadelphia “a killing field.” He repeatedly returned to stories of crime and murder in the city, blaming Democrats.
Oz, echoing weeks of attacks on Fetterman, accused him of being soft on crime and touted his endorsement from the Fraternal Order of Police, the powerful police union.
Mastriano blamed Shapiro, the state’s top law enforcement official, for rising homicides in Philadelphia.
That wasn’t the only issue raised. Others said the choice on the ballot was between $5-a-gallon gas and Republicans. They attacked restrictions imposed during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. And Republicans repeatedly railed against “open borders” and “illegals” (in Mastriano’s words).
But crime, even as much as inflation, looks like a major focus for the GOP in the campaign’s final stretch.
Oz got a stronger reception Saturday than during a May Trump rally, when some attendees booed him.
On Saturday, most in the crowd cheered him. But there was real passion for Mastriano, greeted on stage by a “Doug for Gov!” chant.
Wearing spurs on his boots, Mastriano and his wife, Rebecca, repeatedly attacked transgender women in women’s sports, railed against mask mandates for children and critical race theory and called his Democratic rival, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a “big-time loser.”
“That’s why he’s here, because everyone realized that he fought,” Trump said later.
Both candidates have Trump’s seal of approval, but Mastriano channels the former president far more directly.
Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make Mastriano more likely to win in a swing state that still has more registered Democrats than Republicans. Some Republicans argue the opposite.
Democrats were almost as happy to see Trump as his supporters were.
“Doug and Trump are in lockstep about dismantling our very democracy,” said a fund-raising email from Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor.
Fetterman noted that for all of Oz’s attacks on his record on crime, the Republican nominee “is about to stand side by side with one man who attended the January 6 attack on the Capitol and another who incited the riot and just [Thursday] said the rioters should be pardoned.”
Biden’s poor approval ratings, and voters’ worries about inflation and the economy give Democrats reason to worry. They’d be glad to turn the focus instead onto the former president.
Despite Trump’s insistence that he is the “law-and-order” president, the early stages of the rally, and part of Trump’s own lengthy speech, featured sympathy for the people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, and criticism of their prosecutions.
Two advocates, who said their relatives were arrested for nonviolent offenses (including one who later took his own life), had early speaking slots, decrying the penalties the rioters have faced and the conditions they’re facing while in jail. U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R., Ga.) called for shutting down the Washington, D.C., jail holding many of the insurrectionists, and instead jailing Anthony Fauci.
The message was a hit with the Trump-friendly crowd. But Democrats will argue that it undermines the GOP’s tough-on-crime message, and affirms the message Biden delivered Thursday in Philadelphia, when he said the Trump wing of the GOP has abandoned the rule of law.