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Primary Concerns

Pennsylvania May Be Democrats’ Best Hope for a Senate Pickup in 2022

The GOP candidates vying for the Keystone State’s seat in the upper house are wildly out of the mainstream. That doesn’t mean Democrats can beat them.

A close-up of Pennsylvania Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman
Michael Williamson/Getty Images
Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has emerged as the front-runner in the Democratic Party primary for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat.

Barring a significant upset, John Fetterman will become the Democratic nominee for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat on Tuesday. The hulking Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, known for his towering stature at six foot, eight inches and penchant for gym shorts, is hardly the sort of candidate the state’s party establishment typically favors. But with his own dedicated supporters who have the passion of a fan base and a Republican opponent who Democrats hope will be too extreme to appeal to moderate suburban voters, Pennsylvania may provide the best chance Democrats have at picking up a federal statewide seat in what’s likely to be an otherwise difficult election year.

“Republicans have kind of rear-ended each other here, and they’re on the cusp of nominating candidates that are out of the mainstream of Pennsylvania, and that gives Democrats a lot of energy and hope that we’ll be successful in November,” Jay Howser, a Pennsylvania-based Democratic consultant, said. “Whoever emerges on the Republican side is going to have a lot of scars from this primary—I mean, really brutally beaten up.”

Recent polling has shown Fetterman miles ahead of his Democratic primary opponents, Conor Lamb and Malcolm Kenyatta. Even the stroke Fetterman experienced last week, which precluded him from participating in campaign events over the weekend, did not shake his status as the undeniable front-runner in the race.

Republicans don’t have the luxury of a similarly locked-up primary. Recent polls show dark horse candidate Kathy Barnette gaining steam, dampening the momentum of the heretofore leading candidates, David McCormick and Mehmet Oz. Oz and McCormick have been the major rivals for essentially the entirety of the primary; their campaigns and allies have flooded airwaves with attack ads against each other. Their brutal hand-to-hand combat seems to have created an opening for Barnette to slip forward. Internal polling for both Democrats and Republicans has shown Barnette essentially evenly splitting the vote with McCormick or Oz or leading by 10 percentage points, according to multiple Democratic and Republican strategists.

Barnette’s out-of-nowhere rise has triggered panic among the Republican establishment, while providing Democrats with a dose of optimism that Fetterman will face either a candidate whom voters know through attacks and faults or an unvetted fringe candidate who snakes the nomination at the last second. Barnette, who has a history of making Islamophobic and homophobic comments, may be the most controversial of the possible nominees. But Barnette, hedge fund manager McCormick, and famed television personality Oz have all got something in common: Each has spent the race attempting to cast themself in the mold of former President Donald Trump, and all have questioned the legitimacy of the 2020 election. Democrats hope that their far-right ideological bent will prove unpalatable to voters. (Oz was endorsed by Trump, who has raised questions about Barnette’s electability.)

This should be a dream scenario for Democrats. Since 1988, Pennsylvania has gone for the Democratic nominee for president in every such election except one—Donald Trump’s in 2016. While the Republican primaries for both Senate and governor have been chaotic, bare-knuckle brawls, the Democratic primaries have been far more bland. The Democratic candidates have largely avoided attacking each other outside of their debates; a Philadelphia TV station pulled an ad from a pro-Lamb super PAC last month, as it made false claims about Fetterman.

The nominees coming out of the Republican primaries have a history of indulging in outlandish claims and fringe theories; one of the patterns that has emerged in the Keystone State is that several of the top candidates for statewide office participated in the rally on January 6, 2021, that led to the riot at the U.S. Capitol; Barnette also marched toward the Capitol alongside Proud Boys, NBC News reported. But 2022 is widely expected to be a Republican wave election. Even in a Senate race that has many of the ingredients Democrats need to buck the national trend, there’s still a strong possibility Republicans will keep control of the Pennsylvania Senate seat. Pointing to the “headwinds” Democrats are facing this year, Howser said: “No matter who it is, it’s going to be competitive.”

Fetterman’s ascent raises questions about his statewide electability. The former mayor of Braddock, a western Pennsylvania town hollowed out by the collapse of the steel industry, Fetterman does not have the same moderate credentials as Lamb, a congressman who flipped a Republican House seat in 2018. Lamb is a candidate more in the mold of President Joe Biden, but he has failed to gain traction against Fetterman.

Fetterman is not a self-avowed progressive, like Kenyatta, the third candidate bringing up the rear. Fetterman endorsed Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election and supports abolishing the filibuster, raising the minimum wage, and legalizing marijuana, but he does not deem himself a progressive. When asked during the recent Democratic debate on what threshold he would establish a wealth tax, Fetterman replied: “You know it when you see it.” He has also called himself “pro-policing, pro-community policing, pro–funding the police” and has been widely criticized by some Democrats for refusing to apologize for chasing down an unarmed Black man and holding him at gunpoint in 2013.

But Fetterman’s potential liabilities will fade when the few independent, undecided voters in the general election compare him to the Republican nominee, argued Neil Oxman, a Democratic consultant based in Pennsylvania. Oxman compared the race to last year’s Virginia governor’s race, in which Glenn Youngkin won in part because he presented himself as more concerned with kitchen table issues than the tenets of Trumpism. “If the Republican nominees for Senate or governor were as good as the Republican nominee for governor of Virginia, this would be a different battleground,” Oxman said.

Another complicating factor is the looming Supreme Court decision on abortion, which could result in the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Democrats are hoping that such a ruling could motivate their voters, particularly since the Republican candidates in Pennsylvania each support extremely stringent abortion restrictions: Barnette, Oz, and McCormick believe abortion should be outlawed except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk. But the court’s decision may also motivate Republican voters. Barnette’s meteoric rise is due in part to an affecting campaign ad in which she revealed that her 12-year-old mother gave birth to her despite the fact that she was conceived in a rape.

There’s a through line between Pennsylvania’s Senate race and its governor’s race, going into election day. In both cases, Democrats look to have settled on a consensus nominee, while Republican voters have hewed toward the fringiest candidates available. In the governor’s race, Attorney General Josh Shapiro—who has been the far-and-away front-runner throughout the Democratic primary—is poised to face state Senator Doug Mastriano, a recently Trump-endorsed nominee who is under scrutiny by the select committee investigating the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Mastriano has fully embraced conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. In fact, the Republican—who attended the protest preceding the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6—is considered by Democrats to be so toxic that presumptive Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro began airing television ads seemingly aimed at boosting support for Mastriano among Republican primary voters.

“Nobody on the Democratic side is going to underestimate anybody, but both in the gubernatorial and Senate GOP primaries, things are an absolute mess,” Jeff Sheridan, the former campaign manager for outgoing Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, said. “I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it before.”

As the overused campaign cliché goes, both races will come down to turnout. If Republican voters are more motivated than Democrats, that will likely sway the election, regardless of how far to the right the GOP nominees might be. Oxman pointed to the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey last year, when Republican voters turned out in higher numbers; New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, an incumbent Democrat, just barely squeaked by to victory while Virginia’s Democratic nominee, Terry McAuliffe, went down resoundingly despite having turned out record numbers of Democratic voters. He also noted the Republican sweep of judicial races in Pennsylvania in 2021 as a turnout marker.

“If Republican turnout surges in Pennsylvania in 2022, and Democrats don’t participate, then it doesn’t matter who the nominee is, and it doesn’t matter what kind of campaigns the Democratic candidates for governor and senator run,” Oxman said.

Pennsylvania is somewhat unique among the plethora of Senate and gubernatorial campaigns this cycle. It is a potential bright spot for Democrats, who could pick up a Senate seat previously held by a Republican and retain control of the governor’s mansion. To get there, Democrats have been betting that the crazier the Republican candidate seems, the better their chances.

However, the pull of partisanship can overcome a voter’s aversion to an otherwise distasteful candidate; some Republican voters who personally disliked Trump in 2016 nonetheless voted for him, believing that he would enact their favored policies and appoint conservative justices to the Supreme Court. Trump won Pennsylvania in 2016 by less than a percentage point, and Biden in 2020 by just over a percentage point. In such a heavily polarized era, Democrats are hoping that they can appeal to those rare remaining voters on the margins who could swing one way or the other. The bet is that a candidate like Mastriano would turn off that marginal group of voters.

The risk, however, is that no matter how agreeable the Democratic nominee is, sometimes the Republican wins. In this case that would mean a Republican governor who gladly participated in the events leading up to the January 6 mob attack at the Capitol would have a powerful hand in the 2024 presidential elections. If Fetterman loses, that would mean Democrats will have missed their best pickup opportunity this cycle and, depending on Fetterman’s Republican adversary, Trump will have gained yet another ally in the Senate happy to buck Democrats and even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. It might seem that the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania is a foregone conclusion, but the stakes for this particular election are incredibly high.