Battle for Pennsylvania Senate seat could decide who controls Congress next year

·Senior Writer
·7 min read

A battle between Democratic progressives and moderates, accusations of domestic violence against a candidate endorsed by former President Donald Trump and the potential entry of a television doctor are all factors in Pennsylvania’s wide-open 2022 Senate contest.

The Republican side of the race opened up in October 2020, when incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey announced he would be retiring and not seeking a third term. Democrats had substantial victories in the gubernatorial and Senate races in the 2018 midterms, but Toomey’s reelection in 2016 and the last two presidential results in the Keystone State were all tight races within 2 points. Joe Biden won Pennsylvania in 2020, but in 2016, Trump became the first Republican to carry the state since the Reagan era.

Next year’s Senate race is expected to be a marquee midterm contest, with both the Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia Center for Politics rating it as a toss-up. And given the Senate’s current 50-50 split between the parties and a map that could favor Democrats, it’s plausible that Pennsylvania will decide who controls the Senate.

From left: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Rep. Conor Lamb, Dr. Mehmet Oz and Sean Parnell. (Photos: Vural Elibol/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Jeff Swensen/Getty Images, Keith Srakocic/AP Photo, Mark Makela/Getty Images)
From left: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Rep. Conor Lamb, Dr. Mehmet Oz and Sean Parnell. (Photos: Vural Elibol/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images, Jeff Swensen/Getty Images, Keith Srakocic/AP Photo, Mark Makela/Getty Images)

The race’s very early frontrunner in fundraising and name recognition is Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. The former mayor of Braddock, a small steel town outside Pittsburgh, Fetterman ran for the Senate in 2016 as the progressive candidate in the race, finishing third in the Democratic primary. He also stands out physically: bald, goateed, dressed down and towering over Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in their appearances together.

Fetterman's profile has risen since then, as he was an outspoken critic of election conspiracies promulgated by Trump and his supporters last fall, becoming a cable news regular in the process. When the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, issued a reward for proof of voter fraud, Fetterman pointed to a Pennsylvania man who voted for Trump via his dead mother’s absentee ballot.

Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania speaks with supporters during an open house event at the residence of Governor Tom Wolf (D - PA) after the inauguration ceremony on Jan. 15, 2019, in Harrisburg, Pa. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Fetterman asked for the reward in gift cards to Sheetz, a regional gas station chain, and the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank. Patrick did not pay up, however.

Fetterman has touted his progressive bona fides throughout the campaign, vocally supporting marijuana legalization, directing his supporters to donate to union strike funds and criticizing centrist Senate Democrats who are unwilling to abolish the filibuster in an effort to pass more of the party’s agenda. Since entering the race in February, he has raised more than $9 million.

The candidate who could emerge as Fetterman’s top competitor, Rep. Conor Lamb, has positioned himself to the lieutenant governor’s right. Lamb, a Marine and former prosecutor, first gained prominence in Democratic circles by winning a March 2018 special election to a Pittsburgh-area U.S. House seat. In a series of tweets on Sunday, Lamb did not directly name Fetterman but implied he was too radical to win a general election.

“If you want a Senator who runs as a Socialist, feeds the GOP attack ads, & didn't help with infrastructure, I'M NOT YOUR GUY,” wrote Lamb. “That's not how you beat Republicans. I know because I've actually done it & will again. I'm a normal Democrat who supports jobs & wins elections.” 

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., talks with constituents at Riardo's Bar and Grill on Aug. 6, 2021, in New Castle, Pa. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
Rep. Conor Lamb talks with constituents in New Castle, Pa. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Two Philadelphia-area Democrats are among the others contending in the race. Valerie Arkoosh, a physician and chairperson of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, would become the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania. And Malcolm Kenyatta, a 31-year-old state legislator representing Philadelphia, would become the state’s first Black and openly gay senator.

According to the most recent filings, Lamb and Arkoosh have both raised more than $2 million, while Kenyatta has brought in $1.2 million. Both Lamb and Kenyatta were featured as “Rising Stars” keynote speakers at last year’s Democratic National Convention.

The Republican race to replace Toomey is just as muddled at this point. Among the contenders is Jeff Bartos, a Philadelphia-area real estate investor who has served as the state party’s finance chair and unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor against Fetterman in 2018 after considering a Senate bid.

Then there’s Carla Sands, who served as Trump's ambassador to Denmark and was one of his key fundraisers in California before recently relocating back to Pennsylvania. The CEO of a real estate investment firm founded by her late husband, Sands has the ability to self-finance her run, already investing $3 million of her own money, according to reporting by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But neither Bartos nor Sands has earned the endorsement of Trump, who has instead thrown his support behind Pittsburgh native Sean Parnell, calling him a “great candidate” who “will make Pennsylvania very proud.” A former U.S. Army Ranger who lost a tight House race to Lamb in 2020, Parnell has become a favorite in conservative media circles. But his campaign has been rocked by accusations from his estranged wife that he strangled her and abused their children.

Sean Parnell walks through a crowd gathered at a campaign rally for then-President Donald Trump on Sept. 22, 2020.
Sean Parnell at a campaign rally for then-President Donald Trump at Pittsburgh International Airport in September 2020. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

During testimony in a custody case last week, Laurie Snell said her estranged husband “tried to choke me out on a couch, and I literally had to bite him,” and said he called her a “whore” and told her to “go get an abortion.” Parnell testified Monday that her comments were “complete fabrications” and “flat-out lies,” saying he “never” strangled or got physical with her.

“Let me emphatically state: I have never raised a hand in anger towards my wife or any of our three children,” Parnell said in a statement after Snell’s testimony. “What happened today in court was not justice, nor did it have any basis in fact or truth.”

The judge hearing the case said Tuesday he would issue a written opinion after he comes to his decision but did not offer a timetable as to when that might happen.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who oversees the Republican Senate campaign arm, declined to say whether the Trump-endorsed candidate was right for the job considering the allegations. Scott is formally staying neutral in Senate primaries.

“We’ll see who comes out of the primary,” he said in an interview with CNN on Monday. “Facts will come out. We’ll find out exactly what people think. I think what ultimately happens is, people are going to look at somebody’s background and say is that the type of person they want and also are they talking about the issues I care about.”

More Republican candidates could still enter the race, and on Tuesday a report circulated of one potential wild card: Dr. Mehmet Oz, television’s “Dr. Oz,” who rose to prominence via guest appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s show before getting his own series. The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative outlet, reported that Oz had “begun hiring a staff and reaching out to potential allies.” 

Turkish-American cardiothoracic surgeon Mehmet Oz makes a speech at a podium in 2019.
Dr. Mehmet Oz speaking in New York in 2019. (Vural Elibol/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Oz has been long criticized for promoting junk science on his show. A spokesperson for him told the Free Beacon: "Since last year, Dr. Oz has lived and voted in Pennsylvania where he attended school and has deep family ties. Dr. Oz has received encouragement to run for the U.S. Senate, but is currently focused on our show and has no announcement at this time."

Meanwhile, Politico reported last week that Pennsylvania Republicans are urging David McCormick, a combat veteran and hedge fund executive who served in former President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department, to enter the race.

With Toomey’s retirement, Pennsylvania is seen as a top pickup opportunity for Democrats next year, as is neighboring Ohio, where a brutal GOP primary to replace outgoing Republican Sen. Rob Portman is playing out.

Republicans, meanwhile, are hoping to hold onto seats not only in Pennsylvania and Ohio, but also in North Carolina and Florida, while knocking off Democratic incumbents in Georgia, Nevada, Arizona and New Hampshire.

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