PA-Senate: Republicans in Trouble

Former US Ambassador to Denmark, Carla Sands — a Pennsylvania senate candidate to watch.

By Jim Ellis

Nov. 29, 2021 — The Keystone State of Pennsylvania, with an open Senate and governor’s race, will be a focal point of the 2022 election cycle, and last week the Republicans’ early problems grew worse.

The Pennsylvania GOP began this election cycle in a seemingly underdog position as they fought to hold the Senate seat from which two-term incumbent Pat Toomey (R) is retiring; now they are clearly playing from behind.

Iraq War veteran Sean Parnell (R) had former President Donald Trump’s endorsement and was leading the Republican primary in early polling. However, due to losing a child custody judgment rendered at the beginning of this week after a contentious trial in which his ex-wife had accused him of domestic abuse, Parnell withdrew from the Senate contest.

It’s a loss for his party, but Parnell wasn’t even the best of candidates. In his first bid for public office, running for the 17th Congressional District seat against Allegheny County area incumbent Conor Lamb (D-Pittsburgh), now himself a Senate candidate, Parnell came close but lost 51-49 percent. Based upon a close defeat in a winnable district, he decided to make a statewide Senate run.

Two other primary opponents, former lieutenant governor nominee Jeff Bartos and Army veteran, Trump campaign activist, and former congressional candidate Kathy Barnette, also lost their most recent political races. Therefore, the original three leading Republican candidates in either polling or fundraising hadn’t ever won a race and were falling well behind their Democratic counterparts.

The Democrats feature the overall early race leader, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. He commands first position in primary and general election polling and has raised way more campaign capital than all of his opponents, over $9.2 million through the Sept. 30 financial disclosure period.

John Fetterman, however, isn’t without his own flaws. In 2013, when he was mayor of Braddock, a borough southeast of Pittsburgh in Allegheny County and located on the Monongahela River, Fetterman pulled a loaded weapon on an unarmed African-American jogger after hearing gunshots fired in his neighborhood. The Fetterman campaign has already produced a short video explaining the incident in anticipation of this becoming an issue in his 2022 statewide effort.

Rep. Lamb is running second to Lt. Gov. Fetterman in polling and dollars raised, almost $7 million behind his chief Democratic rival. The latest poll, from the Civiqs organization (Oct. 31-Nov. 1; 929 likely Pennsylvania Democratic primary voters, online) found Fetterman way ahead of Rep. Lamb, 52-12 percent, with other announced and possible candidates, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia), Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, and potential contender Sharif Street, a state senator and son of former Philadelphia Mayor John Street, all polling at five percent or less.

The Pennsylvania race is viewed as possibly the nation’s top current Senate battleground. With this state’s electorate being perceived as the most likely to flip to a different party than that of their current incumbent, PA becomes the most mentioned place when looking toward breaking the 50-50 Senate tie.

Unless the GOP can rebound from their early woes with a stronger candidate, the race could easily slip away early and force them to double down in other states just to stay constant with the Senate strength they currently possess.

Carla Sands

One bright spot on the Republican horizon, however, could be former ambassador to Denmark, Carla Sands. Independently wealthy with the ability to infuse seven figures into her campaign — she already has just invested over $1 million in an early statewide media buy to take advantage of the chaos within the party primary — she may be best positioned to make a run at both the Republican nomination and for attracting the Trump endorsement. She is a candidate to watch.

After spending three terms in the House and then not seeking re-election in 2004 because he took a self-imposed three-term limit, Sen. Toomey was elected to his statewide position in 2010. His re-election in 2016 was interesting in that both he and Donald Trump carried the state, yet did so with completely separate winning coalitions within the same campaign cycle.

While Trump concentrated on driving the vote up in the state’s western and rural areas in order to off-set the strong Democratic push coming from Philadelphia and its suburban region, Sen. Toomey was able to construct his own independent coalition that depended upon a greater suburban vote because he would not fare as well as Trump in the rural areas.

Strangely, the two were both able to win through attracting a different sect of ticket-splitters even though they came from the same party. It was one of the most unique team victory combinations that we have seen in the current political era.

This week’s developments are a clear negative for the Republicans, but they were fortunate in that the Parnell campaign if it were to collapse did so early, thus giving the party time to recover.

The Pennsylvania candidate filing deadline is March 8 for the May 17 partisan primaries. Expect a great deal of action to occur in the Keystone State even before the Senate contenders must officially file their final candidate documentation.

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