A bipartisan vote in Washington this week provides a glimpse of the partisan clash coming to Pennsylvania.
To Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the infrastructure bill that passed the Senate with support from both parties Tuesday showed Democrats delivering on their promises and reflected what he’d do if he’s elected to the chamber next year.
“This bill is a big win for Pennsylvania,” said Fetterman, one of the party’s leading candidates in Pennsylvania’s critical U.S. Senate race. Another Democratic contender, Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, said it brought the state “one step closer to creating good-paying, union jobs” and better roads, bridges, and internet access.
But Jeff Bartos, a Republican seeking the same Senate seat, called it “the latest iteration of a Washington hell-bent” on spending “money our children and grandchildren haven’t even earned yet.” Fellow GOP contender Sean Parnell derided it as “a trillion dollar corporate welfare scheme for left-wing special interests.”
The conflicting responses — mirrored by virtually all the major Democratic and Republican candidates — previewed the competing arguments likely to play out in a crucial Senate race that could help determine control of the chamber.
It also reflected the parties’ contrasting postures, as Democrats try to convince voters that they deserve to stay in charge, while Republicans run against the status quo, including some of the leading figures in their own party.
Democrats aim to show they’ve ‘delivered’
Though 19 GOP senators supported the $1.2 trillion plan, including their Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, the Pennsylvania Republicans campaigning to join his caucus had a nearly uniform response: They’re against it.
They blasted the bill as too expensive and including too many items beyond roads and bridges, praising Pennsylvania’s retiring GOP senator, Pat Toomey, for voting against it. One candidate, Kathy Barnette, falsely tied it to “critical race theory,” a hot-button culture-war topic animating many on the right.
Pennsylvania’s Democratic candidates, meanwhile, made clear they intend to run on what could become one of President Joe Biden’s central accomplishments. They argued that the GOP contenders spurned a bipartisan compromise that has unusually widespread support in public polling and will create jobs, expand internet access and public transit, and shore up the state’s decayed roads and bridges.
Paired with the expanded child tax credit, which Democrats pushed through in March without GOP support, Democrats envision 2022 campaigns that emphasize tangible benefits everyday voters see in their family budgets and local travels, a contrast with what they say is a GOP focused on divisive cultural issues rather than results.
“The Republican Senate field continues to demonstrate that they have no real solutions to offer voters while Democrats deliver for Pennsylvania,” said Jack Doyle, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.
It’s easy to picture the Democratic Senate nominee next year standing beside construction vehicles rumbling at a bridge repair, arguing that the Republican would have blocked that very project.
An antiestablishment GOP
But Republicans vying for their party’s nominations aren’t immediately competing for the entire electorate — they’re focused on their hard-core primary voters, who tend to be more conservative and skeptical of some of the party’s key figures in Washington.
“Republican voters right now are obviously more antigovernment, anti-status quo, and antiestablishment than we’ve seen in a long time,” said Jim Lee, a Republican pollster based in Harrisburg.
Incumbent senators in both parties have an incentive to produce results, he noted. But candidates, especially for the party out of power, run against Washington. Lee said that’s especially true in a party still dominated by former President Donald Trump, who railed against the bipartisan deal. The bill’s support from the likes of McConnell and Sen. Mitt Romney (R., Utah) might only have increased the incentive to attack it.
“That’s the establishment bill, and that’s not who conservative Republicans are taking their marching orders from. It’s Trump,” said Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling and Research.
Republican strategists are also betting that while this bill has bipartisan support, it will come to be lumped in with a dramatic wave of government spending — most of it pushed through by Democrats only. Democrats are now working on a party-line effort to advance a massive $3.5 trillion package of social programs touching on health care, education, climate change, and immigration, funded by raising taxes on the wealthy.
That follows the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan passed in March. Taken all together, that’s a huge tab, Republicans say, and runs counter to the moderate image Biden projected during his presidential campaign.
They argue that the benefits will be outweighed by new debt and rising inflation that’s already costing voters for gas and groceries.
The campaign manager for Carla Sands, a recent entry into the GOP Senate field and Trump’s former ambassador to Denmark, called it an “unsustainable” expansion of debt for a “radical left” wish list. Barnette blasted the spending, saying, “This is what ‘bipartisanship’ gets us.”
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected the infrastructure bill would increase the federal deficit by about $256 billion over a decade, though Democrats point out that Republicans made few complaints about debt when they backed the 2017 tax cuts now expected to increase the deficit by close to $2 trillion.
Tellingly, a lonely Republican candidate who said he would have supported the infrastructure plan was Craig Snyder, who’s running as an anti-Trump Republican.
Snyder, a former aide to the late Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, called the bill “the kind of commonsense ground we need on many issues.”
The bill includes $110 billion for roads and bridges — Bartos argued that everything else is “political pork” — but also $66 billion for Amtrak, $25 billion for airports, $39 billion for public transit, $65 billion for the power grid, and $55 billion for clean water projects, along with $65 billion for broadband.
Independent experts, Democrats, and the Republicans who helped write the bill point out that it’s the largest infrastructure investment in decades, and achieves a bipartisan goal that eluded each of the last two presidents.
The goodwill in Washington is likely short-lived, though.
As Democrats now aim to advance their $3.5 trillion package, Republicans are zeroing in on its price tag and social programs, which could include an array of far-reaching and potentially controversial progressive initiatives. That bill is already causing friction among Democrats, as moderates and progressives wrangle over how far to go and what policies should be included.
That debate could put Democrats on less unified footing.