Democrats prep for competitive Pennsylvania Senate primary

But they believe Republicans will have to contend with a messier contest

Democrat John Fetterman, right, speaks with supporters after being inaugurated as lieutenant governor in January 2019. He is now exploring a run for Senate. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Democrat John Fetterman, right, speaks with supporters after being inaugurated as lieutenant governor in January 2019. He is now exploring a run for Senate. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)
Posted January 13, 2021 at 11:18am

As Democrats fight to preserve their razor-thin Senate majority in 2022, all eyes will be on Pennsylvania. And Democrats are gearing up for a competitive primary in the perennial battleground state.

Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman announced last week that he is exploring running, and the race is wide open in both parties after GOP Sen. Patrick J. Toomey's announcement that he is retiring. Fetterman hasn’t decided yet if he will run. But if he does, he isn’t likely to clear the primary field. 

Democrats expect the contest for the GOP nomination to be the messier primary, especially as the state has been at the center of President Donald Trump’s effort to overturn the presidential election, an effort that fueled a violent mob's attack on the Capitol last week. 

Republicans who objected to certifying Pennsylvania’s electors, including National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott of Florida, have faced pushback from members of their own party. Eight of the nine Pennsylvania Republicans in the House supported the objection. The lone GOP lawmaker who opposed it, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, introduced a resolution to censure Trump. Toomey, who vehemently opposed the objection, has called on Trump to resign. 

A crowded Republican primary to replace Toomey could become a proxy fight for the GOP in a post-Trump era. Former GOP Rep. Ryan A. Costello, who retired in 2018 after his district was redrawn, is exploring a run as an anti-Trump candidate, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. 

Should Democrats coalesce around one Senate candidate, that candidate could have the race to him- or herself as Republicans duke it out for the nomination. But there doesn’t appear to be any appetite among Democrats to do that — at least not yet. The national party has a history of taking sides in Pennsylvania, but primaries can also help candidates sharpen their skills and messaging. 

“I think Democrats in Pennsylvania are very much united,” said one Democratic strategist in the Keystone State. “Competitive primary? Sure. Divisive? I don’t think so.”

A crowded field

Fetterman is expected to be a formidable candidate if he decides to run. He’s been elected statewide and has built a national profile as a brash, unapologetic progressive. Fetterman ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2016, losing the primary to Katie McGinty, who was backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Fetterman’s campaign announced Monday that it had raised more than $500,000, including donations since announcing he was exploring a run on Friday. 

“Without question, this display of support has intensified and accelerated this decision process, and a decision will be forthcoming in a matter of weeks,” Fetterman said in a statement.

Fundraising will be critical for any Senate candidate, especially in a state with two expensive media markets in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. 

But Fetterman’s fundraising haul isn’t likely to scare off other Democrats, especially because state Attorney General Josh Shapiro is expected to run for governor, which is also an open race. Multiple Democrats believe Shapiro could lock up that nomination. 

For ambitious Democrats, “The Senate race is where you go, because it’s much more wide open,” said Pittsburgh-based Democratic strategist Mike Mikus, who worked for McGinty in 2016. 

And there is no shortage of ambitious Democrats, including current members of Congress. 

Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, who represents a district in the Philadelphia suburbs, is still considering a run. Democrats are also watching Rep. Conor Lamb, whose district includes the Pittsburgh suburbs. Other members of the delegation have also been mentioned as potential candidates, including Democratic Reps. Brendan F. Boyle and Madeleine Dean, a frequent cable news guest who was named as an impeachment manager on Tuesday night. 

Democrats also mentioned Val Arkoosh, who chairs the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, as a potential contender. Arkoosh’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Two strategists also named state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a vocal supporter of President-elect Joe Biden, as a potential candidate.

Aside from Lamb, the other potential candidates hail from the eastern part of the state, which could give Fetterman a geographic edge. He's the former mayor of Braddock, a working-class steel town outside of Pittsburgh.

It’s not clear whether the national party will once again weigh in on the Pennsylvania race, as it did in 2016. Fetterman has not spoken with Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer nor with the party committee, according to a source with his campaign. 

The DSCC has been aggressive about choosing preferred candidates in targeted states, and their candidates usually win their primaries. But they don’t always win in November. In 2016, McGinty lost to Toomey by 1 percentage point while Trump carried the state by an even narrower margin.

“I would think that Pennsylvania Democrats would be skeptical of the national party stepping in again and trying to anoint a candidate,” said one Democratic strategist familiar with the state. “It just hasn’t worked.”

The president’s party typically struggles in the first midterm elections of his presidency, but Democrats believe the Keystone State is a top pickup opportunity. Biden, who has roots in Scranton, won the state by 81,000 votes, or just more than 1 percentage point. 

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