Pennsylvania GOP settles fight over contested race for chair

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania’s Republican Party is trying to amicably settle a contested race for chairman between a candidate who had backing from top Trump campaign officials and a rival who previously had support from many Trump-aligned party activists.

Bernadette Comfort instead will drop her candidacy and serve as the Trump campaign’s chairwoman in the presidential battleground state ahead of the 2020 election, under a deal that came together Friday after several days of talks.

The contest had unfolded as Comfort fended off accusations that, as the party’s vice chair, she knew about and ignored complaints of sexual harassment of women by state party officials, including the just-resigned chairman. Comfort has denied the accusations, and will remain as the party’s vice chair, a position she has held since 2017.

The state GOP’s former general counsel, Lawrence Tabas, will be the consensus candidate for state party chairman at Saturday’s meeting, the state party said in a statement.

Comfort had quickly drawn backing from top Trump campaign officials after the previous chairman, Val DiGiorgio, resigned late last month. But that high-level Trump support hadn’t been enough to swing a critical mass of committee members behind her in an election that had more to do with local party politics and control.

Tabas, a longtime party lawyer and fundraiser, narrowly lost 2017’s race for chairman, in which he had been seen as the candidate with the strongest backing from Trump-aligned committee members.

“They weren’t going to be influenced by people from the outside,” said Robert Gleason, a Tabas supporter and a former state party chairman. “But they still like Donald Trump, they still voted for Donald Trump, they work hard for Donald Trump, and they felt that they needed to pick their own leader. I don’t know why (Trump campaign officials) felt the need to insert themselves.”

Tabas had corralled the vast majority of the votes, based on his work for the party and his relationships with rank-and-file party committee members, said another supporter, Mike Baker, who chairs the party’s southwest committee caucus.

Comfort’s supporters insisted she could have had enough votes to win. Party leaders framed the deal as a way to avoid a chairman’s election that could have sown animosity among rank-and-file activists and hurt its candidates in next year’s election.

“We worked to find a solution that everyone would agree to,” said David Urban, a Trump campaign adviser who had supported Comfort. “This is a good deal for everyone. You have a unity ticket now.”

In a tweet Friday, Trump wrote, “We have a GREAT TEAM in Pennsylvania! I’m proud to say that our good friends Lawrence Tabas & Bernadette ‘Bernie’ Comfort will now be working together to run the @PAGOP. Lawrence will be Chairman & Bernie will Chair my Pennsylvania Campaign. We must have, & do, great UNITY in PA!”

The fight for the party’s leadership comes as Democratic energy in Pennsylvania is raising serious questions about Trump’s ability to replicate his stunning 2016 win in a state Republicans hadn’t carried for nearly two decades.

Democrats animated by an anti-Trump fervor have since scored big victories in Pennsylvania’s elections for governor, U.S. senator, Congress and the state Legislature.

DiGiorgio resigned after a Philadelphia City Council candidate accused him of sexually harassing her. DiGiorgio has denied that, and said their interaction amounted to “mutual consensual communications.”