In early September, Donald Trump welcomed a handful of Republican allies to Manhattan’s Trump Tower with an urgent message: He saw a “scam” happening with midterm election voting in Philadelphia and elsewhere in Pennsylvania, and he wanted conservatives to do something about it.
“During our briefing, he was concerned that 2020 is going to happen again in 2022,” says former senior Trump administration official Michael Caputo, referencing Trump’s debunked assertion that voter fraud in Philadelphia helped win Pennsylvania for Joe Biden. Caputo — who attended the meeting alongside Bradford County Commissioner Doug McLinko and retired CIA officer Sam Faddis — says they had a message back to the former president: “Our team encouraged him to be concerned … [Furthermore], I’m advising Republicans to recruit and train election observers and a team of attorneys to oversee historically problematic precincts.”
But it’s not just one meeting, and it’s not just Philly.
In recent months, Trump has convened a series of in-person meetings and conference calls to discuss laying the groundwork to challenge the 2022 midterm election results, four people familiar with the conversations tell Rolling Stone. In these conversations, pro-Trump groups, attorneys, Republican Party activists, and MAGA diehards often discuss the type of scorched-earth legal tactics they could deploy.
And they’ve gamed out scenarios for how to aggressively challenge elections, particularly ones in which a winner is not declared on Election Night. If there’s any hint of doubt about the winners, the teams plan to wage aggressive court campaigns and launch a media blitz. Trump himself set the blueprint for this on Election Night 2020, when — with the race far from decided — he went on national television to declare: “Frankly, we did win this election.”
Trump has been briefed on plans in multiple states and critical races — including in Georgia. But Pennsylvania has grabbed his interest most keenly, including in the Senate contest between Democrat John Fetterman and the Trump-endorsed GOP contender Mehmet Oz. If the Republican does not win by a wide enough margin to trigger a speedy concession from Fetterman — or if the vote tally is close on or after Election Night in November — Trump and other Republicans are already preparing to wage a legal and activist crusade against the “election integrity” of Democratic strongholds such as the Philly area.
Trump’s focus on Pennsylvania, however, seems to be more about his own political future than about party allegiance or fealty to his celebrity endorsee. As he hosts meetings on possible 2022 election challenges, he’s also been laying the groundwork for a run in 2024 — where Pennsylvania again promises to be critical and competitive. As one source who has spoken to Trump several times about a potential post-election-day legal battle over the Oz-Fetterman race puts it, Trump views a potential midterm challenge as a “dress rehearsal for Trump 2024.”
Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 and then lost it to Biden in 2020 by more than 80,000, and if the two candidates rematch in 2024, it could well be the state that picks the next president. At the Trump tower meeting in September, Trump also pushed the officials on their efforts limit mail-in voting, the Morning Times and Semafor report. (The biggest 2022 boon for Trump’s 2024 hopes could come if Doug Mastriano — the state’s Trump-touting, 2020 election denying GOP nominee for governor — manages to pull off an upset. But the people in Trump’s orbit, reading the same polls as everyone else, see little chance of that happening.)
Trump is gripped by the belief that he got cheated in Philadelphia in 2020, and this time around, he has privately demanded his allies concentrate additional firepower and legal resources in the commonwealth’s largest and most racially diverse metro area. In recent weeks, according to two people with knowledge of the situation, the ex-president has asked several advisers and at least one of his attorneys what national and Pennsylvania Republicans are doing to prevent Democrats from — in his words — “steal[ing] it in Philadelphia [like] they did last time.”
Trump’s preparation to undercut the midterm elections is part of a broader GOP attack on electoral democracy. Since Trump’s tumultuous and ultimately violent campaign to overturn the results of 2020, he and other prominent conservatives have turned lies about “voter fraud” and “stolen elections” into GOP orthodoxy. And that orthodoxy has supercharged existing Republican Party efforts to limit ballot access — all in the name of election security.
That’s not, however, how team Trump describes its own efforts. “It’s important to prepare for legal fights that will inevitably arise,” says Hogan Gidley, a former White House official who is now vice chair for the Trump-aligned Center for Election Integrity at the America First Policy Institute. “The effort that the Center for Election Integrity is focused on started at the beginning of this year…We’ve been seeding efforts across the country in important states…[because] having people on the ground locally is key to these efforts — because if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
Other prominent Trump loyalists also say they’ve been gearing up for a potential electoral fight, particularly if there are close races.
“No matter what happens, I’m not giving up on getting rid of those voting machines … I will not stop until the machines are gone,” says Mike Lindell, who notes he is similarly prepared to spend millions of dollars on lawyers and possible 2022 legal battles. The MyPillow CEO, a personal friend of Trump’s, was a major financial supporter of multiple efforts to overturn and delegitimize the 2020 presidential election results.
Patrick Byrne — the former Overstock CEO who advised then-President Trump when the latter was weighing using increasingly authoritarian means to cling to power — is working with Trump’s onetime national security advisor Michael Flynn. The duo have formed a group called the America Project, to enlist like-minded activists and Trumpists. “We have made proper preparations for post-election challenges if necessary, but our overwhelming focus is on having a clean, transparent election, which obviates the need for post-election legal scuffles,” he says.
However, the simple Trump and GOP definition of a “clean” election is typically one in which their side wins.
For the moment, the most heated battle over Pennsylvania election law is focused on the state’s rules for mailed in ballots, and is being waged by legal teams for the Republican National Committee. The dispute, which surfaced both in the 2020 election and the 2022 Republican senate primary, Republicans have since tried to stop election boards from counting any mailed-in ballots cast without handwritten dates.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May that tossing out undated ballots violated the Civil Rights Act by “disenfranchising otherwise qualified voters” over a “meaningless requirement” that has no bearing on a voter’s eligibility. The case led the Third Circuit to instruct Pennsylvania election boards to count undated ballots In a ruling last week, the Supreme Court threw out the Third Circuit’s decision but did not rule on the underlying legality of counting undated ballots.
Absent a clear federal position on the ballots, the state is left with conflicting court rulings on whether or not to count them. The state’s Commonwealth Court previously ruled against the Oz campaign and ordered undated ballots can be counted in a non-precedential case filed by his primary challenger, David McCormack, in May. In a 2020 split decision, Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court ruled that undated ballots would count in that year’s election but not in future elections.
Governor Tom Wolf and Acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman have both issued guidance that counties should count undated ballots, citing both the Oz case and Third Circuit ruling. But last week the Republican National Committee and a coalition of Pennsylvania Republicans filed a suit in the state Supreme Court asking it to rule that election boards should not count the ballots.
The feud over mailed ballots in Pennsylvania marks a case of deja vu for the state. The GOP is being represented in its undated ballot suit by attorneys Kathleen Gallagher and John Gore.
The two previously represented the Pennsylvania Republican party in its attempts to overturn the 2020 election over late-arriving mail-in ballots through a Supreme Court challenge.
(Porter Wright and Jones Day, the firms involved in the 2020 suit, both faced an intense public backlash for efforts aligned with Trump’s push to overturn the election.)
And much like the 2020 fight over mailed ballots, rhetoric in the run up to midterm elections is growing heated. MAGA candidates like Arizona’s Kari Lake and Blake Masters, running for the state’s open governor and senate seats, and New Hampshire senate candidate Don Bolduc have all refused to commit to accepting results on Election Day.
Trump supporters in the media have also begun to float a familiar narrative. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson recently backed Lake’s refusal to accept election results, declaring “If it is fair, Kari Lake’s going to win.” In Pennsylvania, Radio host Mark Levin has accused Democrats of “trying to steal the election for Fetterman” over the issue of undated ballots. (Chapman, whose office oversees the state’s elections, says workers have been receiving a number of “violent threats” over the issue of undated ballots.)
Republicans downplay the similarities to 2020. “It’s normal for there to be all kinds of challenges heading into an election and after,” says Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a Trump ally. “This is good, and this is the way competent campaigns run.”
Even before the election, conservative and pro-Trump groups have closely monitored state and county election rules. America First Legal, a nonprofit run by former Trump advisor Stephen Miller, launched a successful bid in Chester County to require increased security at ballot drop boxes in the county and segregation of ballots after security camera footage obtained through an open records request showed voters dropping off more than one ballot into boxes.
Trump’s apparent focus on buttressing Republican legal infrastructure in Pennsylvania stands in contrast to the relatively small sums the former president has put into the race to boost Oz. MAGA Inc, the Trump-backed Super PAC supporting MAGA congressional candidates in 2022, has so far spent just $770,000 in TV ads for Oz — a small amount relative to the $34 million the Senate Leadership Fund super PAC has pledged to spend on Oz.
Trump and national Republicans have also not opened the funding floodgates for Doug Mastriano, who Trump backed in the Republican gubernatorial primary. As governor, Mastriano would have great influence over the state’s election rules in the next presidential election. But his campaign has operated on a shoestring with little outside funding and a near total absence from Pennsylvania airwaves.
At least some Republicans in the state say they have taken notice of the lack of funding from the former president is a sore subject. “There’s a lot of people that were Trump supporters, who backed him through thick and thin,” one Pennsylvania Republican attorney active in politics tells Rolling Stone. “That’s not lost on them.”