Pennsylvania is a prime pickup opportunity for Senate Democrats, adding pressure to the Senate primary fight

If Democrats are going to preserve their Senate majority after the 2022 midterm elections, the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey represents a crucial offensive opportunity for a party desperate for a sliver of hope.

That reality has intensified the pressure on the state’s Democratic primary, with a range of lawmakers, operatives and national party leaders concerned that a contentious contest between Democrats will make it less likely that voters will nominate someone positioned to recreate President Joe Biden’s statewide victory in 2020. But finding which candidate best represents that mandate has proven more elusive.

The primary has so far pitted a handful of Democrats with diverse backgrounds, unique geographic bases and distinct ideologies against each other, creating a contest that could also go a long way in answering several lingering questions for Democrats: How does the party break the Republican hold on rural voters? Can Democrats keep President Joe Biden’s gains with suburban voters? And what can jolt Democratic voters in urban centers the way the antipathy for former President Donald Trump did years earlier?

“Pennsylvania is a very complicated state for Democrats,” said Mike Mikus, a Democratic consultant in Pittsburgh who led Katie McGinty through the state’s Democratic Senate primary in 2016 before the Democrat ultimately lost to Toomey in the general election. “You have to do well in the suburbs, you have to boost turnout in the cities and not get completely slaughtered in these rural counties. It is a delicate balance.”

For a party searching for an electoral path forward, Pennsylvania represents a state that may hold the key.

The race has so far been dominated by two names: Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a progressive populist who has risen to national prominence in recent years, and US Rep. Conor Lamb, a moderate Democrat who has won a series of high-profile congressional races against Trump-backed opponents.

Others have also jumped into the race, including Val Arkoosh, a doctor who chairs a county commission in key suburban Philadelphia; and Malcolm Kenyatta, a state representative with close ties to Biden who has won the support of some national progressive organizations.

Given the state represents Democrats’ best opportunity in a year that could be otherwise challenging for the party around the nation, the pressure on the eventual Democratic nominee will be immense. The candidate will instantly be a central player in how Democrats on the ballot in 2022 handle Biden’s popularity, the successes or failures on Capitol Hill and the broader headwinds facing Democratic candidates.

Republicans race to the Trump mantle

Although the Democratic hopefuls are starting to trade cautious blows — with each candidate beginning to define themselves against largely unflattering portraits of their opponents — the feistiness pales in comparison to the bitterness of the Republican primary, where Republicans have been attacking each other for months and where the Trump-backed candidate, Sean Parnell, opted to end his bid in November after a messy custody battle began to play out in public. The race has also been a beacon for Republicans with questionable ties to the state to take their chance at becoming a senator: Television host Dr. Mehmet Oz recently announced he would run for the party’s nomination despite recently residing in New Jersey; and Carla Sands, a former ambassador under Trump, has announced a campaign despite long residing in California.

The Republican race grew even more crowded this week when David McCormick, a former hedge fund manager who was born in Pennsylvania but most recently lived in Connecticut, announced a bid.

“I’ve been fighting my whole life — from wrestling in this gym to one just like it at West Point,” McCormick says in his first ad. “I fought for freedom in Iraq and American capitalism, not socialism. And now I’m running for the US Senate to fight the woke mob hijacking America’s future.”

In a sign of things to come, Oz quickly slammed McCormick’s entrance, calling the hedge fund manager “Beijing’s favorite candidate” because of his firm’s investments in the country and attacked him for not being loyal enough to Trump.

Finding the right vision

On the Democratic side, many operatives and political watchers in Pennsylvania believe the race is Fetterman’s to lose. The lieutenant governor has already raised significant money and he arguably has the highest profile of the Democrats running. But even operatives who are upbeat about Fetterman’s chances said there are clear paths for other candidates to give the lieutenant governor a serious challenge, especially if Fetterman is unable to broaden his base into populous areas in Eastern Pennsylvania.

Fetterman announced this month that he raised $2.7 million in the fourth quarter of 2021, comparable to the nearly $2.7 he raised in the third quarter of the same year.

Those hauls are far bigger than his Democratic opponents. Lamb announced this month that he raised $1.3 million in the fourth quarter, a small growth from the $1.2 million he raised in the three previous months.

Arkoosh and Kenyatta has not put out their fourth quarter fundraising hauls yet.

Given Fetterman’s higher profile, his opponents have not been shy about defining the race as a chance to reject Fetterman’s more progressive politics and question whether he has actually been tested at the ballot box.

“Our records are very different,” Lamb told CNN of Fetterman. “I’ve run against Republicans three times on their own turf and beat them. He’s won a primary once and it was really Gov. Wolf that carried them to the election in the general.”

He added: “I don’t think John’s politics have really been tested at this level before.”

Lamb, who first won a congressional seat in a 2018 special election against a Trump-backed candidate, has made this argument publicly, too, tweeting in November, “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” and later doubling down on the message.

Arkoosh told CNN that Pennsylvania voters “will take a problem solver over a headline grabber any day,” a not-so-subtle knock on the attention Fetterman gets from national outlets. “And I am that problem solver.”

And Kenyatta has sought to position himself as “the only person in this race who is a working person,” arguing people like Fetterman and Lamb just talk to working class issues, they don’t live them.

“I’m the only person in the race … whose feet are bloody from walking over the glass of governments inaction,” he said. “It’s important that I win so working people in Pennsylvania don’t just have a spokesperson for their concerns, don’t just have folks cosplaying concern for them, but have an actual working person in that room.”

It is not just the candidates who are engaged in the race. Emily’s List, the outside political organization committed to electing pro-choice women, has endorsed Arkoosh and Ben Ray, a top operative at the group, said they did so because “unlike John Fetterman and Conor Lamb whose political careers have been defined by political expediency, Dr. Val Arkoosh has a record of accomplishments to run on and is the no-B.S. problem solver focused on Pennsylvanians.”

So far, Democrats are comfortable with how the candidates are facing off against one another in the race. But there are concerns that a messy, protracted primary could hurt Democrats’ best chance to flip a seat in the Senate.

Joe Cavallo, a spokesman for Fetterman, shook off the attacks, telling CNN that the campaign has been “focused on ourselves” and “on the issues that are affecting Pennsylvanians.”

“Whether it’s Malcolm Kenyatta, Val Arkoosh, Conor Lamb, any Democrat running would be a hell of a lot better in the Senate than Pat Toomey would be,” he added.

Fetterman declined to be interviewed for this piece.

The attacks between the candidates reveal a race that will likely center on whether Fetterman’s politics give Democrats the best chance to win. In 2020, Democratic voters backed Biden, in part, because they believed he had the best chance of defeating Trump in a general election — and for many Democrats, the ability to win in November remains the top issue when voting in a primary.

But the country’s political mood is markedly different more than a year later. Biden has met nothing but opposition from Republicans — and some Democrats — on Capitol Hill and voters have taken a dim view of both him and his party. A series of polls have found voters favoring Republican congressional candidates in the midterms and Biden’s approval rating is underwater. According to CNN’s poll of polls, Biden’s approval rating shows that his average approval rating across four recent polls stands at 42% approve to 53% disapprove

The concerns stem from more than just polls, too. The off-year elections in 2021 offered Democrats significant warning signs, with Democrat Terry McAuliffe losing his gubernatorial bid to Republican Glenn Youngkin in a state that Biden won by 10 percentage points in 2020. Democratic incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy also narrowly won reelection in New Jersey, only slightly edging Republican Jack Ciattarelli in a state that Biden carried by 16 percentage points in 2020.

Biden only carried Pennsylvania by a little more than 1 percentage point.

Not just seven counties

One of the clearest differences between the candidates stems from how they see their geographic base factoring into a general election in November.

Kenyatta, whose political base is in Philadelphia, told CNN about needing to invigorate Black voters in urban areas. Arkoosh and her team argued it is through the suburbs, areas where Democrats saw some of their biggest gains over the last few years, that hold the biggest promise for the party in 2022. And both Lamb and Fetterman’s campaign said the way for Democrats to win is to compete everywhere, including by cutting down margins in rural communities that turned toward Trump over the last few years.

This debate is part of a broader question looming over the party. Some Democrats are fighting for the party to redouble their focus on shoring up urban communities, seeing growing cities as the best opportunity for the party to win going forward. Other Democrats, particularly those who represent exurban and rural areas, are worried that Republicans making more inroads in rural America will spell doom for Democrats in legislative races and make it harder for the party to win statewide.

To Brendan McPhillips, Biden’s state director in 2020, a Democrat in Pennsylvania can’t write off any part of the state.

“You’ve got to campaign everywhere and talk to everybody,” he said. “Some progressives bristle at this. I am not suggesting you ignore at all the persuasion work that needs to be done to engage your base, but you can’t ignore rural parts of the state when you are running statewide. So, you need to show up.”

McPhillips explained that his goal in the Biden campaign was never to win counties where 70% of the electorate had consistently supported Republicans. Instead, it was about keeping the margins down to make sure Biden’s gains in other areas really mattered.

“You may lose a county 80-20,” he said, “but if you lose it 80-20 instead of 85-15, that could be the margin in a tight race.”

The Virginia gubernatorial elections provided a particularly potent warning sign to Democrats, where McAuliffe was able to run up the margins in urban areas throughout the commonwealth but lost to Youngkin because the suburbs ticked slightly toward the GOP and rural areas where Democrats thought they had reached rock bottom went further to the right than ever before.

In Pennsylvania, the debate is particularly fraught, given the party only has one shot at getting it right in November 2022.

With these questions in mind, the Democratic candidates — especially Fetterman and Lamb — have sought to claim they each have the broadest appeal.

Fetterman’s campaign regularly touts the fact that they have received donations from more than 87% of Pennsylvania zip codes, raising $10 million from more than 360,000 individual contributions.

“John Fetterman doesn’t have to convince voters that he is not like every other politician,” said Cavallo, his spokesman. “They see it when they meet him and they hear the way he speaks. And I’ll leave it at that.”

Lamb, asked about Fetterman directly, argued he “fit the mold of the type of person that wins statewide in our state” and the lieutenant governor did not.

“Obviously, I think every inch of ground is important,” Lamb said. “I’ll go to anyone to get their vote, but to the extent that Virginia and New Jersey showed we were starting to lose the support of independents and Republicans in the suburbs, that’s where we have problems at the statewide level.”

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