Analysis: Pennsylvania Senate debate raises questions

Senate candidates State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb attended an April 3 debate.

A Democratic debate and a Republican forum with candidates for the critical Pennsylvania Senate race were held last weekend, but neither frontrunner was in attendance. Despite not attending, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and businessman David McCormick were the topic of their respective parties’ debates as both have avoided questions from competitors or any kind of real scrutiny or questions by the press.

Fetterman has been running on his near-mythic past as mayor of Braddock, in Allegheny County, from 2006 to 2019. Despite Philadelphia State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta being the most progressive Democrat in the race, who some have labeled visionary, Fetterman has garnered the national headlines as a populist.

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, who represents a district outside Pittsburgh, is a conservative centrist whose political ads tout him as the candidate who can beat the opposition because he has beaten Republicans before in his races in the more conservative part of the state.  

Kenyatta, 31, would make history as the first Black openly gay member of the Senate. Both he and Lamb, who is 37, are also among the youngest Senate candidates running nationally. 

In their April 3 debate at Muhlenberg College, broadcast on PCN, Kenyatta and Lamb spent significant time highlighting Fetterman’s absence, choosing to attack the empty podium where Fetterman should have been rather than each other.

Both candidates focused on the controversial incident that Fetterman has yet to address publicly. In January 2013, when he served as mayor of Braddock, Fetterman pointed a shotgun at an unarmed Black jogger, Chris Miyares, after following him in his truck when Fetterman heard what he thought was gunfire and saw Miyares running. 

After announcing his candidacy in 2021, Fetterman told the New York Times that due to what Miyares was wearing, he was unaware of the race or gender of the person he was chasing.  

Miyares, who is currently in prison for armed assault and kidnapping, told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that Fetterman should not be defined by the incident and that he hopes Fetterman wins the race. 

Lamb called the incident racist, and Kenyatta noted that, “John doesn’t have to be racist to be wrong. He was dead wrong and now he refuses to come here, but expects you to vote for him.”

Kenyatta and Lamb sparred on environmental issues that impact Pennsylvania directly and Philadelphia especially. Kenyatta spoke about environmental racism while Lamb reiterated his strong support for fracking and natural gas as the only way to beat coal.

Lamb also was unafraid to note that he had sided against fellow Democrats on this and other issues, prompting Kenyatta to note that Lamb voted with former President Trump 70% of the time in his first term. Kenyatta pointed to particularly fraught votes, like funding Trump’s border wall. (That 70% percentage dropped dramatically in Lamb’s second term.) 

Kenyatta illumined his own working-class history and said repeatedly that voters need working people to represent them in Congress. Pennsylvanians are, he said, ready “to have a new day and to have a government that’s focused on them.”

Fetterman maintains a significant lead in the polls — a full 23% — and announced on Tuesday that his Senate campaign raised $3.1 million in the first quarter of 2022 for a campaign total of more than $15 million. But with 37% of Democratic voters remaining undecided and Fetterman only holding a third of voter support overall, this is still anyone’s race. Lamb and Kenyatta trail at 10% and 8%, respectively.

At the conservative Pennsylvania Leadership Conference forum Saturday there was no actual debate as there was by the Democrats, but there were many jabs at McCormick, who has yet to attend a debate or forum. McCormick is tied with Mehmet Oz in the latest Hill/Emerson poll, but has led in earlier polls. A Fox News poll in March found 24% of voters favored McCormick over Oz at 15%.

McCormick has tried to portray Oz as a “Hollywood liberal” in some ads that have featured blatant homophobia and misogyny. In one ad, a clip of Oz’s show featuring trans children, with Oz being empathetic to the young trans girl is shown. 

At the forum, Oz said of McCormick, “Our commonwealth lost more jobs than any other state in America mainly because they were outsourced overseas. Much of it, by the way, by corporate leaders — Beijing Dave playing a role.”

McCormick has faced criticism from Republicans for his investments in China when he led the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates from 2017 to 2021. China has been a focal point for the GOP in the midterms.   

The surprise at the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference was the straw poll, in which attendees chose Kathy Barnette, the only Black candidate in the race, by a large margin. Barnette is a veteran and a conservative commentator and author. Barnette ranked third in recent polls.

All three candidates have expressed strongly anti-LGBTQ stances, although Oz was, as McCormick claims, previously pro-LGBTQ. In recent ads, Oz has referred to “getting men out of women’s sports” as one of his key issues, a reference to the GOP stance against trans women and girls participating in team sports, about which PGN has reported.

Spotlight PA and its founding members — The Philadelphia Inquirer, Trib Total Media, PennLive/The Patriot-News, and WITF — in conjunction with Dickinson College, the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College, and PCN TV, will be hosting two nights of debates later this month.The events will be broadcast statewide by PCN TV and live-streamed online by the participating media companies.

A Democratic U.S. Senate debate will be held at 7 p.m. April 25 at Dickinson College in Carlisle and will feature Fetterman, Kenyatta, Lamb, and Alexandria Khalil.

A Republican U.S. Senate debate will be held the following night, April 26, at the same time and location and will feature Barnette, Jeff Bartos, George Bochetto, Sean Gale, and Carla Sands. Other candidates, like frontrunners McCormick and Oz, may be added.

The Pennsylvania primary is May 17. Applications for mail-in ballots must be received no later than May 10. May 2 is the deadline to register to vote in the primary. Only those registered with the Democratic or Republican party are eligible to vote in the primary which will determine the candidates for the general election.