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Nikki Haley
Chris Carlson/AP

Donald Trump Has a Republicans Problem in Pennsylvania

On Tuesday, 157,000 Republicans voted for a candidate no longer running for president. They may just be the group that decides Pennsylvania in November.

Bob McMahon voted for Donald Trump in 2016. He voted for him again in 2020. But in a primary already decided for the former president, McMahon couldn’t vote for Trump again.

“I didn’t even know Nikki Haley would still be on the ballot until I saw it when I was voting yesterday. But I’m not going to vote for Trump, so I guess to some degree, it’s a meaningless protest vote, but I know for sure I will not be voting for Trump in November.”

McMahon, a 60-year-old attorney in the Philadelphia suburb of Chester County, is one of 157,000 registered Republicans in Pennsylvania who voted for Haley on Tuesday.

In a state where President Joe Biden won by 80,000 votes, if even a portion of those Haley voters are Republicans who voted for Trump in 2020 or 2016 but refused to do so again, it could be enough to make a significant impact this year.

McMahon said he was a “reluctant” Trump voter in 2016 and 2020, supporting most of his policies but not his personality. Part of his turn away since then was Jan. 6, McMahon said, though he’s “not worried about him being a dictator, and I don’t think it was an insurrection.”

“I’ve just had enough,” McMahon said.

About a third of the Haley voters are from the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs, like McMahon, but others come from exurban and rural areas that Trump carried and where Biden is trying to make a dent in his support. In Lancaster County, for instance, 20% of Republicans voted for Haley.

“You can’t win Pennsylvania without doing respectable in the suburbs, and any winning coalition has to have decent suburban numbers,” a former Nikki Haley operative told NOTUS.

Unlike in other swing states like Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia, Pennsylvania is a closed primary state, meaning Tuesday’s Haley votes only came from registered Republicans, not including independents. While some — potentially most — of those Republicans will still vote for Trump in November, three Pennsylvania Republican strategists told NOTUS they expect others, like McMahon, to vote against Trump for the first time.

“They need to get every vote they can — and they’re not asking for my advice, but if they were, I would be reaching out and messaging to those folks,” the Haley operative said.

And from all accounts, Trump is not.

Trump has regularly mocked Haley since she dropped out of the primary without endorsing him in March.

“Donald Trump and the RNC have made it very clear that if you aren’t an election-denying MAGA extremist, they don’t want your vote,” DNC spokesperson Aida Ross said in a statement to NOTUS.

Several outside groups are putting millions into Pennsylvania and other swing states to get these Haley voters to vote for Biden in November, or at least not vote for Trump. Republican Voters Against Trump, a group that launched last month, is putting $50 million into targeted voter outreach.

“When we think about what this coalition of Nikki Haley voters represents, they might be small relative in size to the rest of the electorate, but they are incredibly powerful in terms of the impact that they’re gonna play on the eventual winner,” said John Conway, the group’s director of strategy.

“We don’t have to persuade every voter to vote against Donald Trump. We just have to persuade college-educated suburban voters in places like Montgomery and Chester and Delaware, where Haley did really well. These are the voters that are going to make up the margins in 2024,” he said.

They’re relying on Pennsylvania Republicans to be their messengers in the form of video testimonials. One recruit is Robert Nix, a Philadelphia attorney involved in Hispanic voter outreach for the Bush campaigns.

“I held my nose and voted for a Democrat for the first time in 2020,” Nix said. “I don’t like Biden at all, but my disdain for Trump is so excessive that yes, I will hold my nose again and vote for Biden in 2024.”

He’s doing everything he can to get his message out to fellow Republicans, including submitting a video testimonial and writing op-eds in his local papers.

“My fear is what’s going to happen is people will go back to, ‘Oh, it’s politics as usual, I’d better vote Republican because I’m a Republican and I don’t like Biden.’ And no, it’s not politics as usual. It’s whether we keep our democracy, which is already faltering, or we give in to this wave of MAGA Republican Trumpism,” Nix said.

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Other groups are testing out a bolder message: Republicans shouldn’t just vote against Trump, but they should vote for Biden.

Haley Voters for Biden, a national super PAC that spun off of one of the groups that backed Haley in the primary, plans to go beyond a message focused on protecting democracy to instead tout the moderate stances Biden has taken in his presidency, like approval of oil and gas projects.

“Republican voters, even Haley Republican voters and anti-Trump Republican voters, simply do not feel the same way about this issue of the imminent threat of authoritarianism as I think a lot of Democrats do,” said Craig Snyder, a former GOP nominee for Congress and chief of staff to former Republican Sen. Arlen Specter. “And so if you communicate only on that issue, I don’t think it will be enough.”

“By voting for Haley, they weren’t just voting against Trump, they were also endorsing a moderate normalcy, a center-right position,” Snyder said. “They’re registering that in this protest vote, but we need to get them over by the final vote to say that Biden is in fact the better choice because he’s not this threatening, left-wing monster.”

Katherine Swartz is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.