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Bombshell or backlash? The nasty turn in Pa.’s GOP Senate primary leaves questions for both Jeff Bartos and Sean Parnell.

Pennsylvania Republicans are split over whether the ugly early clash has slowed Sean Parnell’s momentum after he won Donald Trump's endorsement, or backfired on rival Jeff Bartos.

Jeff Bartos (left) has sharply attacked rival Sean Parnell in the 2022 Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Republican insiders are divided over who has suffered the worst of the fallout.
Jeff Bartos (left) has sharply attacked rival Sean Parnell in the 2022 Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Republican insiders are divided over who has suffered the worst of the fallout.Read moreAP File Photos

WASHINGTON — Allies of Republican Senate candidate Jeff Bartos have pressed ahead with his charged attack on GOP rival Sean Parnell, pointing to protective orders sought by Parnell’s wife — but party insiders are divided over who is suffering the worse political fallout.

On Monday night, a political action committee aligned with Bartos ran a 30-second ad during the Eagles-Cowboys game that highlighted derogatory comments about women Parnell made in 2019 and briefly nodded to temporary protection-from-abuse orders issued against him after allegations by his estranged wife.

Longer versions of the ad, which build on a salvo Bartos, a Montgomery County developer, launched in early September, are also running online and on streaming services for another week, according to the Jobs for Our Future Super PAC. Each signals how Bartos allies are continuing to try to derail Parnell after the Pittsburgh-area veteran won a coveted endorsement from former President Donald Trump.

Little is known about what prompted the two orders issued against Parnell in 2017 and 2018; both were lifted after he and his wife went before judges, and the orders were later expunged. Parnell has said his comments about women were on a TV segment meant for comedy.

Republicans are split over whether the ugly early clash has slowed Parnell’s momentum, or backfired on Bartos.

Some say the orders and Parnell’s comments should give the GOP pause over the early front-runner in a Senate race with national implications.

Pennsylvania Treasurer Stacy Garrity, a Bartos supporter and the highest-ranking elected woman in state politics, called the accusations against Parnell “extremely disturbing” and called on him to “openly and fully” explain them.

“Sean Parnell served our country honorably and at great personal sacrifice in the war on terror. However his attitude toward women is troubling, as are the unanswered questions surrounding the court documents,” Garrity said in an interview after The Inquirer first reported the accusations. “As both a woman and a veteran, I believe that Sean should respond to all of these matters openly and fully.”

Garrity said her concerns have “absolutely nothing to do with” her early endorsement of Bartos. (Parnell’s camp notes that Bartos also contributed to Garrity’s campaign last year.)

» READ MORE: Sean Parnell’s wife sought protective orders against him. Pa. Senate race rival Jeff Bartos says that makes him ‘unelectable.’

The Inquirer interviewed nine Pennsylvania GOP insiders about the issue. Few were willing to talk publicly about the fight, but some argued it has raised enough concern to at least slow Parnell’s hopes of consolidating support after securing Trump’s backing.

Bartos launched the attack days after the endorsement. Several Republicans worried about how the revelations of the protective orders will be seen by suburban women, a critical voting bloc.

Others say the real damage has been to Bartos, who they argue dropped his biggest bomb early, and it was a dud. Instead, they say, he has faced an even sharper backlash for delving into such a personal issue, nearly nine months before the primary.

“It’s a testament to [Parnell] and his team that he survived the first 48 hours and the next 14 days” after Bartos released the details, said Vince Galko, a Republican strategist from Chester County who is not aligned with either candidate. “He still remains the front-runner.”

Heather Heidelbaugh, an attorney for Parnell’s campaign and the GOP nominee for state attorney general last year, said voters “deserve more” from a statewide candidate.

“The citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania should pay close attention to the depths that Mr. Bartos will sink in order to try to misrepresent the facts,” Heidelbaugh said in a statement provided by the Parnell campaign.

None of the attacks stopped Parnell from landing a high-profile endorsement Thursday from Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.), one of the leaders of the GOP effort to subvert the 2020 presidential election and throw out Pennsylvania’s votes.

Parnell, a former Army Ranger who served in Afghanistan and received a Purple Heart, has called on Bartos to drop out of the race.

With incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey retiring, Pennsylvania’s Senate race may be Democrats’ best opening to flip a GOP-held seat. It’s one of a handful of contests likely to determine control of the Senate.

Republicans believe they’ll have significant political momentum next year — especially with President Joe Biden’s falling poll numbers. But for months, some have worried that none of their candidates are up to the task, and the early brawling has worsened those fears.

The original TV spot from the Bartos-aligned PAC focused largely on the protective orders, and was slated to run Sept. 18, during Penn State’s prime-time football game against Auburn. But it didn’t air, and instead a shorter version ran for Philadelphia-area viewers Monday night, almost entirely omitting the orders, other than briefly showing an Inquirer headline about them.

Parnell’s team said the changes came after they challenged the original spot as inaccurate, though they declined to specify what was incorrect. A spokesperson for the Bartos-allied Super PAC noted the original ad is still running online and said they made a “strategic decision” to use a shorter version that ran Monday, which focused on Parnell’s on-camera comments and got them “more bang for their buck.”

In that 2019 segment on Fox Nation, Parnell said that “the idea that a woman can live a happy and fulfilling life without a man, I think it’s all nonsense,” and that “the whole happy wife, happy life nonsense has done nothing but raise one generation of women tyrants after the next.”

The context-free comments in the ad were part of a show in which the hosts take controversial positions for comedic effect, Parnell tweeted last year when the comments were reported by the Pittsburgh City Paper during his unsuccessful 2020 congressional campaign. Parnell’s campaign noted that he called for equal treatment of boys and girls during another segment of the same show, when he criticized “Ms. Monopoly,” a version of the game in which women make more money than men.

The temporary protective orders issued against him in 2017 and 2018 were withdrawn soon after judges heard from both Parnell and his wife, Laurie. Such orders are initially issued at hearings involving only the accuser, not the accused. A judge withdrew the first after an agreement between the Parnells, and in the second instance a judge ruled against Laurie Parnell’s request to make the order permanent, according to court documents supplied by Parnell’s campaign.

Bartos has said even the temporary orders make Parnell “unelectable” in a competitive race. The campaign manager for another Republican candidate, Carla Sands, echoed that criticism this week.

“Reports of Sean Parnell’s behavior are offensive, outrageous, and disqualifying. Parnell cannot be trusted to win the general election or represent millions of Pennsylvania women,” said Joe Desilets.

» READ MORE: Here are the candidates to replace Pat Toomey in the U.S. Senate

A Parnell spokesperson said that they “expect this type of dishonesty from Democrats” but that it’s “disgraceful” coming from “purported Republicans.”

“It’s pathetic that Sean’s political opponents are knowingly smearing him with desperate lies, all because they know their campaigns are in free-fall,” said the spokesperson, Ian Prior, adding that the attacks “are hurting Sean’s young children.”