Kenyatta falls short in Senate bid

Malcolm Kenyatta. (Photo by Amanda Swiger).

With a backdrop of Independence Hall, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta had filmed a final plea to Pennsylvania voters to support his candidacy for the U.S.  Senate. Kenyatta said, “My closing message is simple. I’ll be the passionate fighter for working families that we need to change a U.S. Senate that’s not delivering for working people. With your vote we’ll send a message to the cynics and pundits that Pennsylvania is ready for a new day.”

But that new day was not to come. The historic candidacy of the rising star in Philadelphia’s Democratic Party came to an end Tuesday night. Kenyatta placed third in the Democratic primary for the open Pennsylvania Senate seat currently held by retiring Republican Pat Toomey. 

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman won the nomination in a landslide with 59 percent of the Democratic vote. With strong name recognition and a constant media presence due to his position, Fetterman had led in the polls throughout the campaign. Rep. Conor Lamb, who represents  Pennsylvania’s 17th congressional district in the northwestern suburbs of Pittsburgh also competed in the race.

After his loss to Fetterman, Kenyatta was quick to assert he will work to prevent a GOP Senate win, telling NBC’s Chuck Todd on Election night that “Allowing any one of these Republicans to become Pennsylvania’s Senator will be the canary in the coal mine for democracy dying on our watch.”

Kenyatta had previously told MSNBC’s Katy Tur that night that the three leading Republican candidates for the Senate seat were concerning. He said, “Kathy Barnette, David McCormick, Dr. New Jersey [Mehmet Oz]. They’re all out of their damn minds. None of them have any business running for the U.S. Senate.”

Kenyatta had sat down with veteran news anchor Andrea Mitchell in Philadelphia on Election Day to discuss his bid for the Senate seat in what has been roundly called the most pivotal Senate race in the nation. Kenyatta told Mitchell, “People are looking for somebody who’s going to actually stand up for working people and working families.”

Kenyatta said, “In me, they have somebody who represents the working class majority in Pennsylvania.”

Kenyatta’s strong and visionary platform had promised to propel Pennsylvania forward after 12 years of Toomey’s lackluster representation. But as a Black gay man and a Philadelphian in a state that has long favored Western-PA candidates, Kenyatta’s run was always considered a long shot. But as Bakari Sellers told CNN on Election night, “Malcolm Kenyatta is an amazing candidate, an awe-inspiring candidate who ran extremely strong.”  

But Fetterman ran stronger. Despite a sudden stroke and heart surgery just days prior to the election, Fetterman’s win was declarative. Some Lamb supporters claimed Kenyatta should have withdrawn from the race to make room for Lamb to rise, but Kenyatta supporters, which lean young and progressive, would have been far more likely to have voted for Fetterman, not Lamb, who despite three terms in Congress barely crested a quarter of the vote. 

In a change election, Lamb ran on his record, a Manchin-lite candidate who is center-center with no progressive inklings. “It’s one of the worst campaigns I’ve ever seen run,” said Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic strategist. “Strategically it’s been mind-boggling to watch this. They completely blew an opportunity… Conor should be the nominee and it’s the campaign’s fault.” Lamb’s electability argument wasn’t a winning strategy and in fact turned off many voters who viewed Lamb as entitled and presumptive. A TV ad campaign in which GOP talking points claiming Fetterman was a socialist were also damaging. 

The Republican primary battle between millionaires TV personality and doctor Mehmet Oz and Dave McCormick, a hedge fund executive, may take weeks to resolve and could go to a recount. At press time, Oz had a small margin of 2,000 votes, and edged McCormick 31.3% to 31.1% but as McCormick noted in a speech Tuesday night, mail-in ballots have yet to be counted. Plus, Lancaster County is having to do a hand-count due to polling machine problems.

Kathy Barnette complicated matters for Oz and McCormick by taking 24% of the vote in a late rise. Some had thought Barnette’s likability and compelling personal story could win her the nomination, but late news that she participated in the January 6 Stop the Steal rally that led to the insurrection against the Capitol may have hurt her.

The Philadelphia Inquirer had declined to endorse any of the Republicans citing their political views and inability to acknowledge that President Biden had won the 2020 election as a break with reality.

In the primary for governor, Participation in the events of January 6 was not a problem for the candidacy of Doug Mastriano who won a landslide victory in the crowded GOP race. While Donald Trump’s endorsement of Oz didn’t win him the Senate race outright, Trump’s endorsement of the far right extremist state representative may have pushed undecideds into Mastriano’s camp.  

A staunch hard-liner in the GOP, Mastriano is a conspiracy theorist who has pushed the Big Lie that there was widespread voter fraud in 2020 and that Trump won the election. 

In the days after the leak of a draft of a U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Mastriano has been strident in his support for outlawing abortion without any exceptions. Pennsylvania state Republican leadership, concerned over Mastriano’s level of extremism, had tried to garner support for candidate Lou Barletta as an alternative in an attempt to stop a Mastriano nomination. But Mastriano won nearly 50% of the vote. It was decisive.  

In a 26-minute acceptance speech aired in its entirety on PCN, Mastriano began by making a transphobic joke about former Pennsylvania Health Commissioner and current Assistant Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, a transwoman. He then noted that if he wins in November that “only biological females will play in biological female sports” and that “on day one, you can only use the bathroom that your biology and anatomy says.”  

Mastriano also asserted that he would end CRT — Critical Race Theory — which Republicans claim is an anti-white version of American history that is being taught in K-12 schools, which it is not. 

Mastriano said he wants to “restore freedom” and on “day one” “every jab for job mandate is over… CRT is over…. You’re going to walk in freedom.”

The GOP’s selection of Mastriano — a 2020 election denier who has been called before the January 6 Committee — means that should he win the general election against Democrat Josh Shapiro in November, he would then have total power over the election machinery in Pennsylvania — one of the key battleground states during the 2024 presidential race. 

In Pennsylvania, the governor appoints the secretary of state. The secretary of state takes charge of  Pennsylvania’s elections and signs off on its electors. Mastriano had suggested new electors in 2020. Trump had attempted to sway secretaries of state in swing states like Georgia to shift the election to him. Matriano had tried to instigate a GOP review of Pennsylvania’s ballots in 2020.

“Doug Mastriano wants to ban abortion without exceptions, restrict the right to vote and spread conspiracy theories, and destroy the union way of life for hard working Pennsylvanians,” Shapiro said in a statement Tuesday. “Mastriano wants to dictate how Pennsylvanians live their lives — that’s not freedom.”

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Victoria A. Brownworth is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, DAME, The Advocate, Bay Area Reporter and Curve among other publications. She was among the OUT 100 and is the author and editor of more than 20 books, including the Lambda Award-winning Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic and Ordinary Mayhem: A Novel, and the award-winning From Where They Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth and Too Queer: Essays from a Radical Life.