Campaigns & Elections

Straw poll from Pennsylvania Leadership Conference offers early look at future GOP nominees

The annual conservative conference concluded after three days of speakers and panels

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday, Treasurer Stacy Garrity & state Rep. Craig Williams

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday, Treasurer Stacy Garrity & state Rep. Craig Williams Commonwealth Media Services; Photo by Carl Weiss

By John Cole

On the final day of the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, the two candidates seeking the Republican Party nomination for state attorney general faced off in a cordial forum to explain to voters why they are seeking the office and their positions on the important issues. 

“I’m running for attorney general because if our communities are not safe, then nothing else matters,” said York County District Attorney Dave Sunday. “It is the absolute most important part of what we do.”

“What I am bringing to the table is a bona fide, bad-to-the-bone, law-and-order message about prosecuting in these large cities,” state Rep. Craig Williams, a Delaware County Republican, said. 

The forum on Saturday morning, moderated by Alex Halper from the PA Chamber of Business and Industry, was much friendlier than the candidates’ debate on ABC27 in March. They largely agreed on policy matters, however. 

Both candidates took shots at Gov. Josh Shapiro, who was the state’s attorney general from 2017 to 2023, before he was elected governor.

“If you want to be an activist attorney general, then that’s the path for you to become a Democratic governor. And that’s not something that I think anyone here wants to ever see with their attorney general,” Sunday said.

Sunday has endorsements from the Pennsylvania Republican Party and the Republican Attorneys General Association, while Williams is being backed by multiple GOP colleagues in the state House.

There are five Democrats seeking the party nomination for attorney general. 

Current Attorney General Michele Henry is not seeking reelection. She was appointed by Shapiro to finish out his term when he was elected governor.

April 8 is the last day to register to vote in Pennsylvania for the primary election. Applications for a mail-in or absentee ballot must be received by your county election board by no later than April 16 at 5 p.m. 

The Pennsylvania primary election is April 23.

Speakers continue to emphasize voting by mail

Echoing the theme from the conference’s previous two days, speakers on Saturday made the case that Republicans need to endorse voting by mail. 

Cliff Maloney and Justin Greiss of the Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania spoke about their effort, dubbed “The Pennsylvania Chase” to knock on thousands of doors across the commonwealth and raise Republican mail-in ballot statewide totals from 20% to 33% in the upcoming election. 

They told the crowd that they “hate mail-in ballots,” but with the current laws in place, Republicans need to embrace it to defeat Democrats, they said. Greiss and Maloney created an app to help with their coordinated effort to promote mail-in voting. 

On Friday, U.S. Senate candidate David McCormick and U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, a Republican representing the 10th congressional district, shared similar messages: They don’t like the state’s mail voting laws, both said at separate events, but believe Republicans can’t win elections without them. 

U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, a Republican representing the 9th congressional district, also made a call for Republicans to embrace vote-by-mail on Saturday, calling the margins by which the GOP lost in 2020 and 2022 due to mail-in voting “a big problem that needs to be improved.”

“If there’s a 1% chance somebody can’t show up on Election Day, they need to get an application and they need to vote early,” Meuser said. “In-person, vote early or mail-ins.” 

While Republicans seemed unified during the conference on this newfound embrace of mail-in voting, former President Donald Trump, the GOP’s presumptive 2024 presidential nominee, has blasted mail-in voting regularly over the past several years calling it “totally corrupt” as recently as February.

Former U.S. Sen. David Perdue, a Republican from Georgia, visited the conference on behalf of Trump’s campaign on Saturday. 

While the Georgia Republican pointed to Pennsylvania as one of the key states and boosted Trump’s candidacy in a speech, one thing was noticeably missing: any mention of voting by mail.

In 2022, a Georgia judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by Perdue alleging fraud or counterfeit ballots counted during the 2020 election.

A panel held during the conference, titled “Build trust in Pennsylvania elections,” was held by Heather Honey of the Election Research Institute and state Rep. Dawn Keefer, a York County Republican.

They spent 20 minutes detailing their belief that protocols for elections need to be safer in Pennsylvania and criticized Shapiro for enabling automatic voter registration.

Honey’s research on election integrity has been called into question, including a report on the Electronic Registration Information Center that was found to contain numerous errors and misrepresentations, Votebeat reported. 

Garrity takes the stage 

During a panel on Saturday morning about the state of the conservative movement, panelists called Trump the “most pro-life president” in U.S. history, pointing to his appointments of three Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.

The longtime conservative pundits also likened Trump’s rise to former President Ronald Reagan, arguing both defied the establishment when they first ran and brought people into the party who were previously not Republican voters. 

Treasurer Stacy Garrity, who is seeking a second term this November, also took the stage on Saturday to urge voters to support Republican candidates up and down the ballot. 

“Right now, our movement is facing a colossal battle,” Garrity added. “It’s a fight for our economy, our values, and our nation.” 

Auditor General Tim DeFoor, who is seeking a second term, was the only Republican seeking statewide office in 2024 who was not on the conference agenda this weekend. 

Jenny Beth Martin, one of the original organizers of the Tea Party movement, delivered an impassioned speech about Trump’s reelection effort.

Straw poll results

At the conclusion of the three-day conference, Scott Davis, president and CEO of the Cybersecurity Association of Pennsylvania, relayed the results from the annual straw poll. 

Of the 240 participants who voted in the straw poll, 63% selected Sunday for the Republican Party’s nomination for Pennsylvania attorney general, while 21% voted for Williams, and 16% were undecided. More than half of the straw poll participants – 59% – were male.

The poll also asked voters to write in who they wanted to see run for Pennsylvania governor in 2026. Garrity received 7%, while 6% named state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a Franklin County Republican, the party’s 2022 nominee for governor. He lost to Josh Shapiro by double digits in that race. 

Perry garnered 4% of the straw poll votes for governor, and 3% called for state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, a York County Republican, to run. Several others received 1% of the vote. 

No Republicans have announced a 2026 run for the office to challenge Shapiro so far.

To no one’s surprise, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris posted low approval ratings at the conservative conference. Shapiro, Pennsylvania’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Bob Casey and John Fetterman all posted low numbers, as expected, although Fetterman led the way among the three statewide elected Democrats. Garrity and DeFoor had positive ratings in the poll, although Garrity had stronger numbers. 

Vivek Ramaswamy, who spoke at the conference the night before, and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott were tied with 13% of the vote for who should be Trump’s pick for vice president. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem received 12% of the vote and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who addressed the conference in 2023, finished with 9%. DeSantis ended his own bid for the presidency in January, after coming in a distant second to Trump in the Iowa caucuses.

John Cole is a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.