The Pennsylvania Republican Party is at yet another inflection point – so who better to talk to about it than U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent, who represented the 15th district in the Lehigh Valley from 2005 to 2018? Since stepping away from Capitol Hill, Dent has been an on-air pundit for CNN and joined the law firm DLA Piper as a non-attorney policy adviser following his departure from Congress. In addition to continuing to be an outspoken Donald Trump critic within the party, Dent broke from the GOP by formally endorsing Joe Biden in 2020 and Josh Shapiro in 2022.
City & State spoke with Dent about Gov. Shapiro’s tenure thus far, the state of the Republican Party in Pennsylvania and next year’s election.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
What are your thoughts on Gov. Shapiro’s first few months in office and his handling of emergency situations like the I-95 collapse?
Shapiro’s been pitch-perfect in the way he’s managed his administration and events. He made some very smart moves by appointing prominent Republicans to his cabinet, including Pat Browne and Al Schmidt. I haven’t followed the day-to-day as closely as others but it seems that he’s managing the I-95 situation quite well and being very transparent and forthcoming with information on the current state of affairs with the bridge collapse.
A bit of a test will come up as the state legislature works through the budget. Everything in Harrisburg is dominated by budget politics more than anything else so that’ll be a bit of a test.
He’s also dealing with an interesting dynamic in Harrisburg right now with split chambers. How do you think he’s working with the Republican-led Senate and Democrat-led House?
During the first few months, the House was really in flux. And now that there’s one party in control of the House, I’m interested to see how the budget dynamics play out. I used to follow it a lot more closely, but with the split chambers and the Democratic governor, it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.
We’ve largely seen Pennsylvania Republicans keep their distance from Donald Trump amid the new wave of indictments. What would an affiliation with Trump mean for a potential Republican candidate in the commonwealth?
In Pennsylvania, especially if you’re running statewide or as a Republican in a competitive district, you must absolutely keep your distance from Trump. Trump’s brand is toxic among the broader general electorate. The fact that he’s been indicted twice now – and one of those indictments is far more serious than the other with the documents indictments – is breathtaking. It speaks to national security, lack of respect for law enforcement, recklessness, carelessness and dangerousness. If you’re running statewide in Pennsylvania, it may not matter how good of a candidate you are if you have an anchor at the top of the ticket.
In this upside-down political world, there are people who will tell you these indictments are helping him. Maybe he gets a little bit of a bump with the most ardent elements of the base. But with key demographics like swing voters and independents, this is catastrophic for the GOP.
I’m just finding it odd that anyone would endorse Trump now. If you’re in a super-safe Republican seat and you feel like you need to do that to protect your flank in a primary, that’s the only circumstance where I could see it. You have to ask yourself at the end of the day if you really want to be endorsing a guy who’s been indicted now for making hush-money payments to a pornstar, mishandling classified material, lying about it and retaining it and obstructing its return to the government. Again, this is material that was some of the most sensitive secrets of the country, including nuclear weapons. I just think it’s astounding that we’re having a conversation about a guy with this type of baggage being the standard-bearer for the party. It will cause considerable damage down-ballot.
Think about how much damage Trump did last time. In 2022, a year when Republicans should have cleaned up, they underperformed significantly. People say he defies political gravity but at some point, the party has to get serious about winning again.
You would rather put forward a candidate who’s forward-looking, aspirational and not obsessed with his own grievances and the 2020 election … Trump’s entitled to the assumption of innocence – but why would someone want to take a risk on someone like this? It’s not surprising that members of the Republican Party are being quiet – what can you possibly say he is doing? They’ve been deflecting, some of the members in Washington, saying, ‘What about Hillary’ and ‘What about Biden’ – but that only goes so far.
That’s why there are so many candidates in this primary running against Trump. There’s a sense of vulnerability. Those candidates aren’t going to win by agreeing with him … Chris Christie has the right idea. You have to take him on frontally and directly. I think most Republicans want nothing more than for Trump to go away.
What will it take for Republicans to win again and do you expect anyone other than Dave McCormick coming forward in 2024 to challenge U.S. Sen. Bob Casey?
Trump made losing great again. That’s really what he’s accomplished since 2016 – underperformance in 2018 and underperformance in 2020. He lost the House in 2018 and lost the Senate in 2020, plus the presidency. Republicans also significantly underperformed in 2022, barely getting the House back and losing ground in the Senate. That’s what we’ve become accustomed to – and if Trump is the standard-bearer in 2024, it will be a rough year.
The country is so polarized that neither side is going to get a huge majority or a huge victory. But on the margins, Trump is hurting the GOP. For GOP candidates in swing states and competitive districts, that’s clearly the case. The abortion issue is also hurting.
I think a lot of candidates are looking at Trump and waiting to see if Trump’s the presidential nominee. They all have to recognize the drag that will have on a statewide candidate … I think McCormick is a strong candidate but a lot of people are taking passes on these races.
Any other thoughts on 2024 and the implications of what a Biden-Trump race would mean for the state?
Trump is the wildcard out there. If you have to run a whole campaign with that guy at the top of the ticket, you have to figure out how to keep your distance knowing that he has his base but he’s also toxic among so many of these swing voters and independents.
I hope the state GOP plays a more active role in the primaries than they did last time, when they basically sat out and it was a disaster. These key battleground states – Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan – there’s been nothing but defeat because of a lot of problematic candidates. From Herschel Walker to Doug Mastriano to Tudor Dixon and Kari Lake, these candidates are all just so outside of the mainstream. Where do they think they’re running? I guess I was brought up in a different political era. We were certainly concerned about winning but we were concerned about how we would be able to appeal to voters who were between center right and center left, recognizing they are key to victory. Now, it seems like folks only care about pandering to the hardest elements of their base, thinking that’s enough to win. They’re finding out that’s not enough to do it in Pennsylvania.