HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — President Donald Trump is encouraging Republican U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a prominent crusader against illegal immigration, to challenge Pennsylvania's Democratic U.S. Sen. Bob Casey in next year's election, a Barletta campaign consultant said Wednesday.
Trump spoke to Barletta about running during a conversation earlier this week, consultant John Brabender said. Barletta, a staunch Trump supporter in Congress, would quickly become the most recognizable name in a field of a half-dozen would-be challengers to Casey, the 56-year-old son of a late ex-governor and a fierce critic of Trump.
Barletta has supported Trump-backed legislation to overhaul the American health care system and introduced a bill to fund the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border in an effort to help Trump fulfill a key campaign promise.
Barletta won his House seat during the Republican midterm wave of 2010, catapulted by the attention he received while mayor of the small city of Hazleton for cracking down on immigrants in the country illegally.
Hazleton approved Barletta's measures in 2006 — denying permits to businesses that hire people in the country illegally and fining landlords who rent to them — but they were never enforced before the U.S. Supreme Court struck them down in 2014. Barletta's strategy was copied by dozens of other cities across the U.S. that accused the federal government of failing to enforce immigration laws.
Barletta did not respond to an interview request Wednesday, instead issuing a statement through his office that did not mention Trump: "I am being encouraged to run for U.S. Senate and will continue to have conversations with my family to determine my next steps."
Barletta, 61, is in his fourth term representing a House district that stretches from south-central Pennsylvania's rolling farms through northeastern Pennsylvania's anthracite coal fields.
Barletta is one of a handful of Pennsylvania congressman who have eyed a challenge to Casey, but leading Republican lawmakers have so far demurred.
Casey plans to seek a third six-year term in next year's election. Democrats' 4-3 ratio registration edge over Republicans gives him a built-in advantage, although that did not stop Trump from becoming the first Republican since 1988 to capture Pennsylvania's crucial electoral votes in the presidential race.
Valentino F. DiGiorgio III, the chairman of the state Republican Party, said Barletta would be an excellent candidate. But, he said, it is still too early to know whether someone else will enter the race for the GOP nomination or whether the party would endorse Barletta.
Should Barletta run, he could count on strong institutional support, said David Bossie, Trump's former deputy campaign manager.
"I believe if Lou Barletta was to run, conservatives, conservative organizations, as well as the Trump organization would coalesce around a Lou Barletta candidacy," Bossie said.
Barletta endorsed Trump in the weeks leading up to Pennsylvania's presidential primary, became a co-chair of Trump's ultimately successful campaign in the state and served on Trump's transition team.
Casey, who has been in statewide public office for more than two decades, is popular with labor unions and was a strong supporter of former President Barack Obama's signature initiatives, including his sweeping health care law and post-recession overhaul of financial-sector regulations.
Casey first ran in 2006 as an opponent of abortion rights and stronger gun laws, but he has moderated those positions and more recently he has voted in line with his party on the issues.