The Pennsylvania Senate race is one of the most critical in the country. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell thinks so. And so do the 10 Democrats and 12 Republicans who have filed to run for the seat currently held by Republican Pat Toomey who is not seeking re-election. TV and radio ads from two millionaire Republicans are a litmus of early visibility, suggesting to voters that only two candidates — Republicans Dr. Mehmet Oz and David McCormick — are out there making statements about their plans for the state. Oz has three different ads, McCormick has two. They are saturating the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh markets. No Democratic candidate is running TV ads yet.
Donald Trump, who tried everything possible to subvert the vote in Pennsylvania during the 2020 presidential election, yet still lost the state, made an early endorsement in the race in 2021: Sean Parnell.
Parnell, an Army veteran and author, came within three points of knocking Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb — himself now a candidate for the Senate seat — out of his incumbency in the House in 2020. But Parnell suspended his campaign after losing custody of his three children to his estranged wife Laurie Snell in November 2021.
Oz moved seamlessly into the breach left by Parnell’s withdrawal and leads in the Republican polling. With a years-long TV show and a myriad of medical devices and other health products in his resume, Oz has the most name recognition of anyone in the race.
Right now the Republican party seems to not care which GOP candidate wins the primary, but that could change if Trump reinserts himself in the race.
On Jan. 25, McConnell told CNN’s Manu Raju that “In terms of Pennsylvania, I think we have an embarrassment of riches.” McConnell said. “Maybe riches literally given the amount of money being spent up there.”
If the Oz and McCormick ads are an indicator, McConnell is right about the money being poured into the race. There is already a PAC ad calling Oz — a fairly extremist Republican running on similar issues to Trump in 2020 — a “Hollywood liberal.”
Money could be the biggest factor in the Senate race. The Pennsylvania primary is May 17, which leaves a scant few months for candidates to rise — or fall — amidst the largest field and first open seat in years. Money is needed by all the candidates, but Oz and McCormick, a former hedge fund entrepreneur, have lots of it.
Democrats will be vying for funds from a base with less money than the GOP and more conflict about who has the best chances of winning. With the broadest Democratic voter base in the state, Philadelphia will play a pivotal role in choosing the next Senator. But Philadelphia Democrats skew less monied and can also be a wild card of voter apathy.
In 2016 Toomey won re-election by only one percentage point against Democrat Katie McGinty. That win was due in part to some Democrats voting third party, others voting Republican and still others not voting at all. Philadelphia could have propelled McGinty into the seat; it didn’t.
Among the Democratic candidates it’s currently a three-way race among Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who has a pronounced lead in the polls and has courted progressives with various hot-button issues like legalizing marijuana; Philadelphia State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who has a massive number of pivotal endorsements among progressive groups and labor unions; and Lamb, a conservative Democrat who has voted against Nancy Pelosi for Speaker twice and has asserted he is going for the mid-state centrist vote. Along with Kenyatta, another openly gay man, Dr. Kevin Baumlin, is also running in the Democratic primary.
Kenyatta, who was named PGN’s Person of the Year in 2020, would make history as the first openly gay man and first LGBTQ person of color elected to the U.S. Senate. He would also be the youngest member of the Senate.
Kenyatta has been assiduously touring the state talking to voters, doing the kind of door-to-door candidacy that has propelled other young progressive candidates of color like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Cori Bush (D-MO) into Congress. But Kenyatta lacks name recognition outside Philadelphia and more importantly, he hasn’t raised the kind of money Fetterman has.
But as Kenyatta pointed out in a tweet on Jan. 25, Fetterman is avoiding the Black vote — a death knell for candidacies in previous races like Bernie Sanders’s presidential runs in 2016 and 2020.
“I don’t know who needs to hear this but to win a Democratic primary and the general election you shouldn’t ignore Black voters,” wrote Kenyatta.
Kenyatta was referencing a Jan. 25 story from the Philadelphia Inquirer detailing how Fetterman “skipped a forum with Black clergy and some Democrats say he’s ducking scrutiny.”
The story asserted, “Recent no-shows have sparked questions about whether Fetterman can handle the scrutiny of being the Democratic front-runner in one of the country’s most crucial Senate races.”
It was not, the story explained, Fetterman’s first missed forum for voters. And while no other candidates were named in the piece, Kenyatta and Lamb were both participants in the forum.
The Inquirer reported, “Fetterman said he had to preside over the state Senate that day. But to some of the roughly 25 clergy who participated, it was a damaging snub — the kind that two other Democratic groups say they’ve also experienced.”
On Jan. 26, Fetterman was fundraising off Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, writing, “Ted Cruz is on his way to our great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania right now. He’s headed to a rally with Republican David McCormick, the millionaire former hedge fund CEO who’s registered to vote in Connecticut.”
Fetterman added, “Here’s why this matters: Republicans are pulling out all the stops to win this seat, including bringing folks like Ted Cruz — and all his conservative donors — to focus on our race.”
Fetterman has been conducting his campaign largely via email, and to a national audience, not just a statewide one, so it was a slightly hypocritical post.
Yet Fetterman’s point is not without merit. Cruz was one of the Republicans who supported the invalidation of the 2020 election results on January 6. And McCormick’s ads all end with the euphemistic “Let’s go!” that has become GOP code for a f*** you to President Biden.
That puts McCormick way on the right in the race, but also violates McConnell’s one rule for Republican candidates: No promoting the Big Lie — Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him through fraud and voter irregularities.
McConnell told CNN, “It’s important for candidates to remember we need to respect the results of our democratic process unless the court system demonstrates that some significant fraud occurred that would change the outcome.”
Yet despite McConnell’s warning, repeated polls show about 70 percent of Republicans believe that Trump actually won the election. A Washington Post investigation earlier in January “showed the vast majority of Republican voters say they agree with Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that the election was stolen.”
All of which factors into the Pennsylvania Senate race. While there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in the state, GOP voters are more dependable with regard to voting within their party. Yet if voters choose an extremist like McCormick in the primary, that could make it easier for whomever the Democrats choose.
For his part, McConnell thinks that winning back the Senate is a lock for Republicans. Plummeting poll numbers for Biden could very well contribute to that. Democratic messaging has been off in recent weeks with some gaffes by both Biden on Ukraine and Russia as well as the administration’s poor handling of COVID testing. The conservative-led Supreme Court scuttled Biden’s vaccine mandate, which will mean a lengthening of the pandemic with its concomitant problems for the economy — a problem for Biden.
These factors all favor the Republicans in Pennsylvania and put the Democrats at a disadvantage. Democratic candidates will have to walk a fine line between supporting the Democratic agenda and perhaps distancing themselves from Biden’s current waning popularity among centrist and progressive Democrats as well as Independents.
Nevertheless, Pennsylvania Democrats and progressives have the opportunity to help hold the Senate and turn the Pennsylvania Senate seat blue. But it will not happen without strong messaging, more cash, and a lot of connecting with voters tired of the pandemic and yearning for normalcy.