Pennsylvania’s high-stakes U.S. Senate race is expected to get a new contender in the coming weeks, when Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh joins a contest that both parties see as vital to control of the chamber.
Arkoosh would become the third elected Democrat in an election drawing intense interest from both parties — even though it’s more than 18 months away. She will enter a growing Democratic field that already includes Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, of Allegheny County, and State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, of Philadelphia.
Arkoosh has long been eyeing the Senate race but is expected to formally jump in as a new fund-raising quarter begins, according to two people who have spoken with her but aren’t authorized to publicly discuss their conversations.
Despite the early maneuvers, it could be months before the contours of the race solidify. Several House members are considering running, and they face different political dynamics and timelines to decide.
Political insiders are closely watching signals from Philadelphia-area Democratic U.S. Reps. Madeleine Dean and Chrissy Houlahan and the Pittsburgh area’s Conor Lamb, as well as several Republican state House members, business leaders, and officials from both parties.
The Senate race carries significant national stakes, as one of a handful that could decide control of the chamber in the second half of President Joe Biden’s term — affecting his ability to pass legislation, appoint judges, or fill potential Supreme Court vacancies. The incumbent, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, isn’t running, making the race in such a closely contested state one of the most wide open in the country.
Interviews with roughly two dozen public officials, political operatives, and campaign donors — most of whom requested anonymity to freely discuss internal party deliberations — identified the factors shaping the race so far, and why uncertainty is likely to linger for months. Among them:
Unlike in 2016, major Democratic groups in Washington are staying out of the fray.
A two-tiered timeline has emerged. House members are likely to take more time deciding, leaving both parties to wait on decisions from some high-profile potential candidates.
Congressional redistricting, delayed by wrangling over the census, is a major factor weighing on the decisions of Lamb and Houlahan, adding another layer of uncertainty.
“A lot of us are waiting to see who really is in and who isn’t,” said Alan Kessler, a Philadelphia-based lawyer and Democratic fund-raiser. “A lot of it at this point is, wait and see how things develop.”
DC groups lying low
The last time Democrats tried to flip this Senate seat, it was clear whom the party establishment favored. National Democrats stacked millions of dollars and campaign staff behind onetime gubernatorial candidate Katie McGinty, helping her secure the 2016 nomination over Fetterman and former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak.
This year, they’re taking a more hands-off approach, according to three Washington Democrats familiar with the party’s maneuvering. EMILY’s List, the political action committee that backs women who support abortion rights and was a major force behind McGinty, has had conversations with Arkoosh, Dean, and Houlahan.
Other national groups, including Democrats’ national Senate campaign arm and political groups tied to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.), are taking a wait-and-see approach, at least for now, according to people familiar with their planning. That could change as the field takes shape and one candidate emerges as particularly strong or problematic.
While Fetterman and Kenyatta jumped in early, Democrats say other potential candidates have different timelines.
Members of Congress like Dean, Houlahan, and Lamb already have federal campaign committees that can be used for Senate campaigns. Houlahan, an Air Force veteran who flipped a competitive seat in the Philadelphia suburbs, ended 2020 with about $3 million in her House campaign account. And she has kept building that war chest, holding events recently with Sen. Chris Coons (D., Del.) and Democratic consultant James Carville.
Fetterman, Kenyatta, and Arkoosh need to fill their coffers from scratch. Fetterman made early inroads, raising more than $1 million in two weeks in January, and has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Facebook ads as he seeks to build a small-dollar fund-raising army.
House members also have more at risk: If they run for Senate, they’ll effectively give up their congressional seats for a less certain campaign.
Houlahan or Lamb, who captured a Western Pennsylvania swing seat in a nationally watched 2018 race, would bring more moderate voices to a contest so far being driven by more liberal ideas, and each represents a competitive suburban area that has become a key piece of the Democratic coalition. Some party insiders see them both as capable of following Biden’s path to victory in Pennsylvania — though candidates like Fetterman and Kenyatta might be more able to excite the party’s liberal wing.
Dean drew attention with a prominent role in the second impeachment of former President Donald Trump.
Some longtime establishment Democrats have urged Houlahan to run, arguing that her political profile fits such a closely divided state. “She’s getting what I would consider an impressive array of heavy hitters encouraging her,” said Alan Novak, a former Republican state chairman who supports Houlahan.
But some Democrats sense hesitancy on her part and are unsure if she will run. Others said Houlahan is deeply deliberative and won’t be influenced by other candidates’ early moves. “Her first priority is Democrats winning that seat and we think she’d be a formidable candidate. She is seriously considering a run,” said a Houlahan spokesperson.
Of course, it’s early to see such activity. McGinty didn’t join the 2016 race until August 2015, and Fetterman didn’t enter that contest until a month later.
House members weighing a Senate run have another consideration this cycle: They won’t know for months what their new House districts will look like.
Every 10 years, states are required to redraw their congressional maps to account for population changes, and those shifts can drastically change a given district. The Census Bureau has said it won’t be able to provide states redistricting data until Sept. 30 amid delays caused by the pandemic and litigation over whether to count noncitizens in the census. Lawmakers have acknowledged they may even need to push back next year’s May primary election.
That uncertainty poses a challenge to Lamb. If his competitive district remains winnable for Democrats, he might be inclined to seek another House term. But the new map could also make the district considerably more conservative — perhaps pushing him toward a Senate bid.
He may have to decide before knowing his district’s makeup.
Houlahan may face a similar question in her Chester County-based district. If its lines are extended westward, the district could take on a more conservative bent.
Next spring’s Democratic primary could draw as many as four candidates from Philadelphia: In addition to Kenyatta, State Sen. Sharif Street is expected to announce an exploratory committee soon, advisers to Mayor Jim Kenney have signaled he’s exploring the idea, and U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle said in an interview he is “considering it” but weighing the demands a statewide race would put on his young family.
Democrats are also closely watching how many candidates emerge from the Philadelphia suburbs, long crucial to winning statewide elections. Philadelphia and its four collar counties accounted for 41% of the vote in the 2018 Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, which Fetterman won.
That’s one reason why Democratic officials and strategists see Arkoosh, the chair of the Montgomery County Commissioners, as a formidable contender.
The 60-year-old physician from Springfield Township has served on the governing board of Pennsylvania’s third-largest county since 2015, one year after losing a bid for Congress. Her public profile has grown as she led the county’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and her campaign is likely to highlight her background as a former doctor.
Arkoosh has already tapped key personnel for her campaign, including pollster Jefrey Pollock and direct-mail consultant Fiona Conroy, who’s worked on statewide campaigns in Pennsylvania and successfully managed the 2012 reelection campaign of Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat.
Uncertainty on the right
There’s less clarity on the Republican side — and fewer names in the mix so far.
Bartos is the only well-known declared candidate. GOP strategists say more than a half-dozen potential candidates had expressed interest in recent months, but several have retrenched.
And while Trump remains a defining figure in the party, no hard-core Trump allies have emerged as likely contenders in Pennsylvania. U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, who has said he is considering running, could fill that void, though the Western Pennsylvania Republican has also expressed interest in the 2022 governor’s race.
Many expected a Senate run from Paul Mango, a 2018 gubernatorial candidate from the Pittsburgh area who held a top job in the Trump administration working on Operation Warp Speed. But he’s now unlikely to run, according to three GOP sources.
Carla Sands, a Republican fund-raiser and central Pennsylvania native who served as Trump’s ambassador to Denmark, has told associates she’s considering a run. Republicans in Pennsylvania and Washington have also encouraged a bid by Kenneth Braithwaite, a former local officeholder in Delaware County who served as secretary of the Navy under Trump and years earlier as chief of staff to Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter.
Costello, who chose not to run for reelection after his House district was redrawn in 2018, has more than $400,000 in his federal campaign account and is fielding calls from volunteers. But after expressing interest in the race in January, he hasn’t taken any more formal steps.
So far, more Republicans are openly exploring a run for governor next year.