The first Democratic Senate primary debate will be held Sunday afternoon in Allentown without the race’s front-runner.
U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta will debate on a stage with an empty podium meant for Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who won’t attend. While the candidates have attended several forums in recent months, this is the first debate of at least four scheduled between now and the May 17 primary.
Fetterman has faced biting attacks from Lamb for skipping out on the debate. On Thursday, Lamb accused Fetterman of hiding to avoid talking about a 2013 incident in which he chased a Black jogger and pulled a shotgun on him.
Fetterman’s campaign has said he declined the invitation because the reach of the event seemed limited — taking place midday on a Sunday as opposed to the three prime-time debates Fetterman’s committed to later in April. He is scheduled to meet with voters in rural Franklin County at the time of Sunday’s debate.
Here’s how to watch, and what we’ll be looking for:
Who: Democratic Senate candidates U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta
When: 3 p.m. Sunday, April 3
Where: Muhlenberg College in Allentown
How to watch: The debate will be televised on PCN and streamed free on its website.
Moderators: The debate will take place in front of a live audience of 175 invited guests, including guests of the candidates, as well as elected officials and party leaders in the Lehigh Valley. Three moderators will ask questions:
Christopher Borick, Muhlenberg College political science professor and director of its Institute of Public Opinion
Jenny DeHuff, editor-in-chief of political news site City & State PA
Ari Mittleman, host of PA Political Podcast: Pennsylvania Kitchen Table Politics
What we’ll be watching for
How much does it become about Fetterman?
How much of the 75 minutes do Lamb and Kenyatta spend trying to call out their opponent who won’t be there to defend himself?
How do Kenyatta and Lamb pitch themselves?
Without Fetterman on stage, Lamb and Kenyatta will have considerable time to argue their cases for candidacy. Lamb’s campaign has largely been rooted in the argument that he’s best suited to win in November as a moderate Democrat who can recreate Biden’s coalition in Pennsylvania. Kenyatta has said that he’s best poised to excite the base, particularly Black voters, progressive voters, and younger voters.
Do policy disagreements become clearer?
Kenyatta and Lamb agree on most big-picture Democratic ideas, but there are some differences between them. Kenyatta supports a ban on new fracking sites, while Lamb does not. Kenyatta supports legalizing marijuana at the federal level, which Lamb opposed in Congress. Kenyatta has also said he would consider expanding the Supreme Court and abolishing the electoral college if elected. Lamb would not.
While we know about these differences, we haven’t really seen them debated back and forth, live. What issues do each spend time focusing on to make their cases?
Lamb also enters the race having changed positions on several issues, including an assault weapon ban, which he previously opposed. We’ll be watching to see how well he explains those shifts and how Kenyatta’s more progressive policy stances are received.
Does anyone have a moment that resonates?
In the most recent poll of the race, Lamb and Kenyatta received 10% and 8% of the vote, respectively, to Fetterman’s 33%. While Lamb has more endorsements, and a Super PAC helping him, both men are facing a steep climb to try and catch Fetterman. But there are also a lot of voters who are undecided — close to 30%, according to the Emerson poll. Does either candidate have a moment that resonates beyond the college auditorium?
What else is coming up
There are several meetings of the candidates coming up, including:
A virtual forum hosted by the Jewish Democratic Council of America on Thursday, April 14, at 1 p.m. attended by Fetterman, Kenyatta, and Lamb to focus on issues important to Jewish Democrats.
A debate Thursday, April 21, at abc27 in Harrisburg starting at 8 p.m. to be broadcast on local TV stations across the state.
A debate Monday, April 25, at 7 p.m. at Dickinson College, attended by Fetterman, Kenyatta, Lamb, and Jenkintown councilor Alex Khalil, to be carried by Pennsylvania Cable Network and streaming free on PCN’s website.
A Republican U.S. Senate debate will be held April 26, at the same time and location as the Democrats’ on April 25, and will feature Kathy Barnette, Jeff Bartos, George Bochetto, Sean Gale, and Carla Sands. Other candidates may be added.
A Democratic debate in Philadelphia in May, the details of which have yet to be announced, but which Kenyatta, Fetterman, and Lamb have all committed to attending.