Standing between the bar and the appetizers set out at a Wayne restaurant, Jeff Bartos hopped up on a bench to see the crowd gathered in front of him.
“We need to save Main Street, Pennsylvania,” said Bartos, a Republican from Montgomery County who is campaigning for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat.
The developer, who previously ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, is one of several Republicans in a very deep field strongly courting Philadelphia's suburbs this year. His task is daunting. Four years ago, the heavily populated southeastern Pennsylvania suburban counties turned a deeper blue in helping President Joe Biden win the state.
Hillary Clinton won all four so-called “collar counties” -- Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester -- in 2016. But it’s what happened in 2020 that helps explain how Joe Biden won the state. Biden received 23% more votes in 2020 than Clinton did four years earlier.
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When it comes to factors Republican voters should weigh this year in the primary, the chairwoman of Montgomery County’s Republican committee says they should consider who can win the suburbs around Philadelphia.
“I think it needs to be at the top of the list,” said Liz Preate Havey. “Listen, I think President Trump lost Pennsylvania because of the Southeast, and we need to figure out a way to get some of our voters back.”
Getting those voters back involves having a message that resonates, Havey said.
“I think people want to hear how do we deal with inflation. How do we deal with this pandemic? Everybody feels down about the pandemic, or at least everybody I talk to -- doesn’t to matter what party you’re in,” she said. “They’re looking for a message that is calm, intelligent, articulate and deals with their every day issues.”
The field of candidates running for the Republican nomination includes Mehmet Oz, who became a household name through his Dr. Oz daytime TV show, Dave McCormick, a former hedge fund manager, Carla Sands, a former ambassador during the Trump administration, and conservative commentator Kathy Barnette from Montgomery County.
The Democratic field includes Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb who represents the Pittsburgh area, and Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia) who represents North Philadelphia. Montgomery County commission chair Val Arkoosh recently suspended her campaign.
Democrats are looking to hold onto crossover and independent voters who chose Joe Biden in 2020.
“That’s our goal,” said Joe Foster, who serves as chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee.
Talking to independents, Democrats need to stress that “our candidate stands for the principles you hold and this is the person for whom you should be voting,” Foster said. “I think we can do it in Montgomery County with some success. The question is how it’s going to play out in the rest of the state.”
In an interview outside the Wayne restaurant where he was mingling with voters, Bartos said he can convince voters who voted for Biden that they should vote for him, and said his campaign is talking about issues that resonate in the suburbs as well as in other parts of the state.
“Everyone deserves and wants safe streets. They want safe communities, parents want a say in their children’s education,” Bartos said.
While some voters held signs and cheered when he arrived, others said they were just there to meet him and check out their options.
“I’m looking for somebody who is going to do what they say they are going to do,” said Patricia Nastasiak from Radnor.
Bill Hicks, of Wayne, predicted that convincing people to vote Republican this year will be “an easier task as bad as things have gotten.”
"I think there’s a good possibility that people will look at it and say maybe we need some change," Hicks said.