Trump’s Political Godfather Is Reportedly Running for Senate

Rep. Lou Barletta rose to prominence by trying to push immigrants out of Hazleton, Pennsylvania.

Lou Barletta and Kris Kobach

Lou Barletta (left) and Kris Kobach speak to reporters outside the federal courthouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 2007.Mark Moran/AP Photo/The Citizens' Voice

On Monday, the Associated Press reported that Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) told GOP leaders he would run for Senate in 2018, becoming the highest-profile Republican challenger to Democratic Sen. Bob Casey in what may be one of the most hotly contest races of 2018. If Barletta runs he won’t have the field to himself; a handful of state reps and two businessmen have already announced, but as a Trump supporter with a congressman’s clout, he’d be a likely front-runner.

His candidacy is significant for reasons beyond the electoral math. Something as monumental and era-defining as the election of President Donald Trump has many authors and origin stories, but you could make a case that the nation’s current arc began in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, in 2006, when Barletta, then the city’s mayor, found himself on the defensive after passing a harsh new city ordinance designed to force undocumented immigrants to flee town. (As the Washington Post noted at the time, “Barletta wore a bulletproof vest [to the vote] because, he says, Hazleton is menaced by a surge in crime committed by illegal immigrants.”)

The so-called Illegal Immigration Relief Act targeted immigrants where they lived by making it a crime to lease housing to anyone without proper papers, and it was one of the first of what would become a nationwide push by conservative municipalities and states to encourage “self-deportation” by making life impossible for immigrants. Looking for help, Barletta placed a call to a young law professor in Kansas City named Kris Kobach. Barletta’s ordinance was going to get thrown out in the courts, but Kobach helped him draft a new one that he believed wouldn’t, and agreed to represent Hazleton in the face of the subsequent legal challenges.

The ordinance was not a win for Hazleton—which spent millions to unsuccessfully defend its ordinance in the courts—but it succeeded on a much larger stage. Kobach’s legislation formed a template that was replicated across the country, and as Kansas’ secretary of state he helped Republican-run states like Arizona draft legislation that would likewise scare immigrants away. By 2011, Barletta was a member of Congress, having unseated an incumbent Democrat in the tea party wave. By 2012, the Republican presidential nominee was being advised by Kobach and speaking openly about nudging immigrants to “self-deport.” And by 2016, the nativist politics that drove Hazelton and Fremont, Nebraska, and other such towns to call in Kobach for help took over the Republican party completely.

Now Kobach is in charge of a Trump administration-led voter suppression project, and a possible candidate to be the next secretary of Homeland Security. And Barletta is angling for a promotion of his own; his election in 2018, in the tightest of swing states, would be a test of just how far Trumpism can rise before it’s cut down by voters.


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend


Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.