Trump heads for campaign rally in Pennsylvania, where down-ballot drama awaits

Days before his hush money trial begins in New York, former President Donald Trump returns Saturday to the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania for a campaign rally that will be notable for who won’t be there – the expected Republican nominee for Senate, Dave McCormick.

Trump has been reluctant thus far to endorse McCormick, who is running unopposed in the GOP primary to take on Democratic incumbent Bob Casey in the critical Senate battleground. McCormick’s campaign told CNN the candidate has a previously scheduled family event, having made the commitment long before Trump announced his planned rally in Schnecksville in the Allentown suburbs.

The former president has so far endorsed all candidates backed by the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the major swing states, except in Pennsylvania and Nevada. (And while he has not yet formally backed a candidate in the Senate race in Nevada, he posted on social media Friday that Republican hopeful Sam Brown and the former president himself were the “Clear Choices of Nevada’s Republican Voters and Donors.”

Trump’s resistance to formally wade into the Pennsylvania Senate race has confounded some Trump allies, especially given that the former hedge fund CEO faces no primary opponents in the April 23 GOP primary.

One campaign adviser insisted to CNN, however, that while there wasn’t a jump to get behind McCormick, there wasn’t any dislike either: “We are going to eventually work with him, and we’re going to support him.”

People close to the former president say the lack of an early endorsement is not entirely surprising: Trump and McCormick have a fraught history, dating back to McCormick’s failed 2022 primary bid for Pennsylvania’s other Senate seat against celebrity heart surgeon Mehmet Oz.

As he campaigned for Senate in 2022, McCormick — no stranger to the former president given that his wife, Dina Powell, previously served as a deputy national security adviser to Trump — met privately with the former president in the hopes of an endorsement, or at least his neutrality in the primary.

But despite the overture, Trump ultimately endorsed Oz and bashed McCormick on the campaign trail in his attempts to elevate his chosen pick. Oz went on to win the Republican nomination by 951 votes after a recount but then lost the general election to Democrat John Fetterman.

At a May 2022 rally, Trump declared that McCormick was “not MAGA” and said he was “the candidate of special interests and globalists and the Washington establishment.”

This time around, McCormick has not reached out for Trump’s endorsement, a source close to McCormick told CNN. A Pennsylvania GOP operative acknowledged that the two would need to work together but said a Trump endorsement might not help McCormick as much as it would other Republican candidates, noting that, given McCormick’s history, he is unlikely to get the full support of Trump’s MAGA base and would need to draw from suburban and independent voters.

“They are very different people with very different profiles,” the operative said.

Trump recently seemed to acknowledge his differences with McCormick, arguing that the West Point graduate was not “pro-Trump,” according to a source with direct knowledge of the comment.

Dave McCormick speaks during an election night party in Pittsburgh on May 17, 2022. - Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Dave McCormick speaks during an election night party in Pittsburgh on May 17, 2022. - Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg/Getty Images

During a May 2023 event at the American Enterprise Institute, McCormick conceded that Trump could once again pose a threat if he sought public office again. McCormick said that his 2022 campaign didn’t think it needed Trump’s endorsement but also recognized that it “would be harder” to win if the former president “went negative” on his candidacy.

People close to the former president point to McCormick’s endorsement of Trump last month as a sign that he will eventually get Trump’s support. But they acknowledge that McCormick’s decision to remain neutral in the GOP presidential primary and not endorse until former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley had dropped out of the running hasn’t helped.

A ‘microcosm’ for the country

During the 2023 event, McCormick said he believed Pennsylvania is a “microcosm” for the country and argued that any successful GOP candidate must appeal both to the Trump loyalists in the Republican base, as well as to moderate Republicans, who still hold traditional conservative beliefs.

That’s a calculus that Trump’s team also faces as it looks to recreate his stunning 2016 victory in the Keystone State, which combined with his wins in Michigan and Wisconsin created a seismic crack in the so-called blue wall of states Democrats had relied on in every election going back to 1992.

Much of Trump’s success that year in those three states was attributed to his sway with blue-collar voters — a core bloc his 2024 campaign is actively courting once again ahead of November.

The campaign’s attempts to win all three states – which Joe Biden flipped in 2020 – will largely focus on messaging around the economy, inflation and immigration, Trump’s campaign advisers say. These themes are expected to play a prominent role in Trump’s Saturday remarks in Schnecksville.

The former president could also air his baseless claims of election fraud, both past and potential — a chief focus for his campaign and the Republican National Committee in 2024 and an issue Trump touted at length Friday during a joint news conference at his Mar-a-Lago resort with House Speaker Mike Johnson. Trump regularly makes false claims about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, including the Pennsylvania result, and has promoted election-related conspiracy theories.

Biden carried Pennsylvania by 81,660 votes in 2020 out of nearly 7 million cast. That tight margin contributed to the presidential race being deemed too close to call on election night, and Biden was projected the state winner days later. This was largely due to the millions of mail-in ballots cast in Pennsylvania during the pandemic that did not begin to be counted until Election Day. That dynamic helped stoke disinformation and false claims of election fraud by Trump and his allies.

Recent polls have shown a tight presidential race in Pennsylvania between Trump and Biden. The pair were tied at 46% each in a CNN survey from last month.

Biden will be making his own campaign swing through Pennsylvania next week, during which he is expected to draw an economic contrast with his predecessor and tout his plans to raise taxes for the wealthiest Americans and corporations. Trump recently told donors he wants to extend the sweeping tax cuts that congressional Republicans approved in 2017.

A fraught time for Trump

Trump has been notably less active on the campaign trail in the weeks since he secured enough delegates to become the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. In that time, he has opted instead to mostly host and attend a series of private, high-dollar fundraisers as his team scrambles to close its big financial gap with Biden and the Democratic Party.

Trump will begin the day Saturday by traveling to Newtown in suburban Philadelphia for a fundraiser before heading north to Schnecksville in the Lehigh Valley.

While this is his first campaign rally in Pennsylvania in 2024, it’s not his first visit to the state this year.

The former president spoke at a National Rifle Association presidential forum in Harrisburg in February, and later made an appearance at Sneaker Con in Philadelphia to unveil a new sneaker line. The “Trump Sneakers” were unveiled a day after the former president and his companies were ordered by a judge to pay nearly $355 million – and an additional roughly $100 million in interest – in his New York civil fraud case. Trump had to post a $175 million bond as he appeals the verdict.

The timing of Saturday’s rally is significant, as it’s Trump’s last campaign event before jury selection begins Monday in his New York hush money trial. A Trump campaign adviser told CNN that, as of Friday evening, the former president’s prepared remarks for his Saturday speech do not include a heavy focus on the trial. However, Trump is notorious for speaking off the cuff at his campaign events — and many of his riffs center on grievances related to his legal troubles.

Trump has been preoccupied for days with his upcoming trial, sources close to the former president told CNN, a weekslong period that will see the former president taken off the campaign trail during a vital period for his White House bid.

The weekend will offer a preview of his team’s balancing act between the courtroom and the campaign trail — following the rally, Trump is expected to fly straight to New York City, where he will be prepared by members of his legal team on Sunday on court protocol and messaging, a source familiar with his plans told CNN.

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