WILKES-BARRE, Pa. (AP) — Larry Mitko has voted for Donald Trump in 2016. But the Republican from Beaver County in western Pennsylvania said he was not considering supporting his party’s Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz – ‘no way, no how’ .

Mitko doesn’t feel like he knows the famed heart surgeon, who narrowly won his May primary with Trump’s backing. Instead, Mitko plans to vote for Oz’s Democratic rival, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman.a name he has known from when Fetterman was mayor of nearby Braddock.

“Dr. Oz didn’t show me anything to vote for him,” he said. “I won’t vote for anyone I don’t know.

Mitko’s thought underscores the political challenges facing Trump and the rest of the Republican Party as the former president shifts into general election mode with a Saturday night rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., the first of the fall campaign .

While the rally was held in support of Oz and Doug Mastriano, the hard-line GOP candidate for Pennsylvania governor, it was Trump’s first rally since the FBI searched for his Mar-a club. -Lago, and Trump spent part of the evening railing against this.

He called it “one of the most shocking abuses of power by any administration in American history” and “a travesty of justice.”

“They are trying to silence me and more importantly they are trying to silence you. But we won’t be silenced, will we? said Trump.

Investigators recovered thousands of documents during the search, including more than 100 with classified and top secret markings.

Trump-endorsed picks won many Republican primaries this summer, but many of the candidates he backed were inexperienced and polarizing figures currently struggling in their November races. That puts control of the Senate — once supposed to be a lock for Republicans — on the line.

In addition to Oz, others include author JD Vance in Ohio, venture capitalist Blake Masters in Arizona and former football star Herschel Walker in Georgia.

“Republicans have now nominated a number of candidates who have never run before for high-profile Senate races,” veteran Republican pollster Whit Ayres said. Although he is not yet writing his party’s odds, he said, “It’s a much tougher business than a candidate who had won several tough political races before.”

The stakes are particularly high for Trump as he lays the groundwork for an expected presidential election in 2024 amid a growing series of legal challenges.

Last week, President Joe Biden gave a prime-time speech in Philadelphia warning that Trump and other “MAGA” Republicans – the acronym for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan – posed a threat to American democracy. Biden tried to frame the upcoming vote, as he did for the 2020 election, as a battle for the “soul of the nation.” Biden’s Labor Day visit to Pittsburgh will be his third in the state in a week, a sign of the importance of the election year in Pennsylvania.

Trump repeatedly attacked Biden — at one point saying “first and foremost, this election is a referendum on corruption and extremism” by Biden and Democrats — and gave a brief spotlight on Oz and Mastriano.

Mastriano, he noted, had fought with him from the start to try to help Trump overturn the 2020 election and stay in power, saying Mastriano had fought “like very few people will.” are beaten”.

Oz, Trump said, “go work and fight for Pennsylvania,” as he attacked Fetterman and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro as extremes while twisting their stances on issues like crime and violence. ‘abortion. In particular, the former president lashed out at Fetterman’s irreverent clothing habits – shorts and hoodies – saying “I don’t like these dirty tracksuits, they’re disgusting”.

“Fetterman may dress like a teenager kicking around in his parents’ basement, but he’s a berserk determined to break hardened criminals out of jail amid the worst crime wave in the history of Pennsylvania,” Trump said.

Republicans have targeted Fetterman for backing proposals to release more geriatric or rehabilitated inmates from prisons and loosen some mandatory sentencing laws.

While Republicans were once seen as having a good chance of taking control of both houses of Congress in November, benefiting from soaring inflation, high gas prices and falling approval ratings for Biden, Republicans have found themselves on the defensive since the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v Wade ruling protecting abortion rights.

Some candidates, like Mastriano, stick to their main campaign playbooks, hoping they can win by toppling Trump’s loyal base even if they alienate or ignore more moderate voters.

Mastriano, who wants to ban abortions even when pregnancies are the result of rape or incest or endanger the mother’s life, played a leading role in Trump’s efforts to void the election of 2020 and was seen outside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. , as pro-Trump rioters stormed the building.

But others have tried to broaden their appeal, removing references to anti-abortion messages from their websites. which is out of step with the political mainstream. Others played down Trump’s endorsements that once figured prominently.

The changing climate has prompted a series of finger-pointing within the party, including from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who last month cited “candidate quality” as he lowered expectations that the Republicans would regain control of the Senate.

Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who heads the Republican National Senate Committee, said those who complain about party candidates have “contempt” for the voters who chose them.

Trump also hit back, calling McConnell a “shame” as he defended the party’s slate of candidates.

Democrats also stacked.

“Republicans have come up with a slate of deeply flawed recruits,” said David Bergstein, communications director for the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee.

In Pennsylvania, Republicans are hoping Oz’s shortcomings as a candidate will be overshadowed by worries about Fetterman, who suffered a stroke days before the primary and was sidelined for much of the year. ‘summer.

Republicans acknowledge that Oz struggles to come across as authentic and has been slow to fight back as Fetterman spent the summer following him on social media and portraying him as an ultra-rich, out-of-touch rug bagger. New Jersey.

As Fetterman leads Oz in polls and fundraising, Republicans say they expect the financial gap to narrow and are happy to see Oz within reach after being hammered by 20 million dollars of negative publicity in the primaries.

Oz won over some once-skeptical voters, like Glen Rubendall, who did not vote for the TV doctor in his seven-vote primary – a victory so narrow it was recounted statewide — but said he’s come back and has a “pro-Oz view now.”

Traci Martin, a registered independent, also plans to vote for Oz because she opposes abortion, despite ads running during the primary with past statements from Oz that appeared supportive of abortion rights.

“I hope he’s (anti-abortion),” Martin said, “but the saddest thing is that we live in a time where we see politicians saying one thing and doing another.”

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Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press writer Brian Slodysko in Washington contributed to this report.

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