No Trump. No Wolf. No Toomey. Both parties can redefine themselves in Pennsylvania in 2022.
Pennsylvania's wide open races for Senate and governor could set the direction for both parties after the Trump presidency, and may offer clues about winning a critical battleground in 2024.
Pennsylvania is politically wide open in 2022 — and it could help set the course for Democrats and Republicans in the wake of the Trump presidency.
With Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey leaving office, the commonwealth is about to host sprawling primaries for both seats, forcing the parties to make choices about who should be their public faces, and what messages they should carry to voters after years in which politics revolved around Donald Trump.
The results, in one of the country’s most closely contested states, could have a massive impact on policy in both Harrisburg and Washington, and provide a blueprint for how to win key battlegrounds in 2024.
The Democratic Senate contest features a direct clash between the self-described populist and progressive Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, and moderate U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, a contrast embodying the divide splitting the party in Congress. But there are also other distinctions based on identity, tone and geography. The candidates include a suburban woman, Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, and a gay Black man from Philadelphia, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.
Looming over the Republican races is the long-running quandary over how closely candidates hew to Trump, who no longer dominates the national conversation but still shadows the GOP.
The Senate race is so attractive that three of the top Republican candidates are ultra-wealthy individuals who moved back to the state to run. There’s Mehmet Oz, a surgeon, TV celebrity and political newcomer whose name ID and television mastery in some ways echo the former president’s; David McCormick, a hedge fund manager and veteran with ties to both Trump and longtime Republican insiders, and Carla Sands, a generous Trump donor whom he later named U.S. ambassador to Denmark.
Another hopeful, Montgomery County developer Jeff Bartos, argues that he can duplicate the GOP’s recent path to victory in Virginia. He likes to point out that, unlike the other rivals, he was living in Pennsylvania before the Senate seat came open.
Some gubernatorial candidates are closely affiliated with the Trump brand while others try to speak to the former president’s supporters without fully wrapping themselves in his flag.
While usually these races would center on incumbents and their records, there’s no such presence to anchor the 2022 campaigns, leaving both parties with a blank slate. The two contests have already lured more than 20 candidates.
The stakes are immense. In the state capitol, a Republican capture of the governor’s office could give the GOP control of both the executive and legislative branches, with oversight over the mechanics of the 2024 presidential election. The Senate contest is one of a handful that could decide control of that chamber and the fate of President Joe Biden’s legislation — and his judicial nominees. And the next senator will have a vote on certifying the next presidential election, after many Republicans made baseless claims about Pennsylvania’s 2020 results.
National party leaders, operatives and analysts are watching closely for clues about what works and what doesn’t.
“You could make the argument that Pennsylvania is arguably the most important presidential swing state now,” said Kyle Kondik, an election analyst at Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. With Florida, in many eyes, shifting reliably into the Republican column, Pennsylvania has the most electoral votes of any other battleground.
The 2022 races will be the first time since 1958 that Pennsylvania has simultaneous senator and gubernatorial elections without an incumbent in either primary.
“It’s the first major election of the post-Trump era in terms of him not being president,” said J.J. Abbott, a Democratic strategist and former Wolf aide. “So it is an opportunity for the parties to define, ‘What does the future look like?’”
The Democratic Senate race embodies the party’s internal differences.
Fetterman and Lamb’s contrasting ideological approaches have drawn the most attention, especially since they mirror the divides stalling Biden’s agenda in Congress.
Fetterman has taken direct aim at centrists like Sens. Joe Manchin (D., W. Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D., Ariz.), who have often blocked major progressive goals.
“Democrats should vote like Democrats and actually deliver for the American people,” Fetterman said in early December, after Manchin announced his opposition to a nearly $2 trillion social spending and climate bill at the center of Biden’s agenda.
» READ MORE: Meet the candidates for Pa.'s open Senate seat in 2022
Lamb has emphasized his more moderate credentials, and success winning tough swing districts, as the best way to flip a Republican-held Senate seat in a closely divided state. He held a fundraiser with Manchin, now seen by many liberals as one of Washington’s most infuriating figures.
“Our party needs a family discussion about who can win & do the job,” Lamb wrote in a December tweet criticizing Fetterman.
Some Lamb supporters have compared him to Wolf, Sen. Bob Casey and Biden, arguing that he fits the mold of a successful Democrat in Pennsylvania — while Fetterman is campaigning on the idea of breaking the mold.
But personal distinctions can often weigh as heavily as ideological debates, if not more so, said David Dix, a Harrisburg-based consultant who has worked with candidates from both parties. It can be especially important in primaries, where candidates broadly agree on most issues, Dix said. Regional ties may be a major factor, too.
Arkoosh embodies the suburban voters, and especially women, who have been crucial to Democratic success in recent years. And while she isn’t as well known as her rivals, several Democratic and Republican strategists cautioned against overlooking her. She’s the only woman in the field, and comes from a region that produces a significant share of Democratic primary votes. Fetterman and Lamb are both from the Pittsburgh area, and could split voters in that region.
In recent weeks, Arkoosh has spoken out against attempts to restrict abortion, hoping to rally Democratic voters, especially if the U.S. Supreme Court issues a drastic ruling on the issue. And her campaign says that while others tangle over ideological positioning, Arkoosh will run as the candidate who achieved real accomplishments, such as a $15 minimum wage for Montgomery County workers.
Kenyatta represents the city whose voters, and particularly Black voters, provide so much Democratic muscle. He argues that if Democrats really want to be the party of working people, they should nominate someone who grew up in such a family.
“I watched my mom ration insulin routinely because she had to choose to either cover the rent or get a refill,” Kenyatta tweeted in December after the apparent defeat of Biden’s Build Back Better Act. “I buried her when I was 26. Passing BBB isn’t hypothetical to me and so many.”
» READ MORE: Analyzing the candidates in Pa. Democrats' U.S. Senate primary
Either Arkoosh or Kenyatta would make history if elected to represent a state that has had 53 senators, all of them white men. Another Democratic candidate, Kevin Baumlin, points to his experience as an emergency-room doctor in Philadelphia as vital to the country’s climb out of the pandemic.
“People’s voting decisions are complicated,” said Abbott, the Democratic strategist. “They don’t make decisions based solely on someone’s ideology.”
The wide swath of Democratic Senate options contrasts with the party’s primary for governor, where Attorney General Josh Shapiro is the only candidate and seemingly on a glide path toward the nomination.
The GOP primaries are more crowded, and less easily defined.
At least 10 people are running for governor while the Senate field is at four, and likely to grow in the coming weeks. That makes it harder for individuals to stand out, and distinctions less clear.
But after years in which GOP politics revolved around Trump, many Republicans this year are less directly trying to channel the former president even if they still nod to him and his supporters. Helping their cause is an argument just about all of the GOP agrees on: hammering Biden and Wolf and emphasizing conservative cultural fights against “woke” progressives.
“A lot of candidates over the years had to field a lot of questions to answer for the standard-bearer of their party on a daily basis,” said Mark Dion, a Republican consultant who has frequently worked on Pennsylvania races. “This election will allow folks to get back to more traditional electioneering where they go out and try to set the message for their campaign.”
Yet even with Biden in the White House, Trump still looms, especially as a potential 2024 presidential candidate. On Jan. 6, the anniversary of the Capitol insurrection, he’s planning to address the news media as he continues to promote lies about a “stolen election” and demand that other Republicans embrace the same false narrative. His endorsement could still hold weight in a Republican primary, though it carries risks in a general election.
Several Pennsylvania candidates are still closely associated with the former president, or trying to be.
Former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a longtime Trump loyalist and 2018 Senate nominee, is running for governor and state Sen. Doug Mastriano (R., Franklin), a prominent election denier, is expected to join the contest on Jan. 8.
In the Senate race, Sands has emphasized her work as Trump’s ambassador to Denmark, seemingly angling for his endorsement after the former president’s first pick, Sean Parnell, withdrew.
“Carla Sands is the only candidate in this race who gave her unabashed public support for Donald Trump before they started to run for Senate,” her campaign said in a statement.
Others, while less explicit, have also tried to capture Trump’s appeal to GOP voters. McCormick, who is soon expected to join the Senate race, has lined up some top Trump advisers, including Hope Hicks and immigration hard-liner Stephen Miller, while Oz has echoed the “America First” slogan. There’s no Republican running on an explicitly anti-Trump platform, which appears unviable in a GOP primary.
But while in 2018 the Republican candidates for governor and Senate ran almost exclusively as Trump acolytes, GOP strategists are largely urging a more nuanced approach this time.
Many point to Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin, a former businessman who scored a major upset in November. He welcomed Trump’s endorsement and embraced some of Trump’s ideas and political cues, but didn’t fully enmesh himself with the former president, or his slashing style. Youngkin’s focus on issues like school closures and how racism is taught helped retain the massive edge Trump had in rural areas, while also winning back many of the voters who had rejected the GOP in suburbs.
» READ MORE: Pennsylvania Republicans have a path to victory in 2022. Pro-Trump candidates may not follow it.
“The Youngkin blueprint is one “where we don’t have to bash on Donald Trump, we don’t have to embrace Donald Trump, we don’t have to talk about Donald Trump,” said Sam Chen, a Republican consultant from the Lehigh Valley.
Bartos has explicitly cited Youngkin as a model. His campaign also argues that he has built grassroots support while traveling the state and supporting GOP candidates.
McCormick, chief executive of the world’s largest hedge fund and a former Army Ranger, ticks several biographical boxes for a traditional GOP candidate. Even before formally launching his campaign he has racked up endorsements from several longtime party insiders. But aides argue that with his roots in the small town of Bloomsburg, he can “bridge the divide” between traditional GOP voters and the Trump base, as Youngkin did.
Oz, in contrast to McCormick, is presenting himself as an outsider who brings some of the same personal assets that propelled Trump: He’s a wealthy television celebrity with name recognition and no political experience, a potential benefit in a party whose voters are often skeptical of government, and even their own party’s establishment.
Oz would be the first Muslim senator in U.S. history. Conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, another Senate candidate from Montgomery County, would be the first Black senator from Pennsylvania and either she or Sands could become the first woman from the state to join the chamber.
» READ MORE: Meet Pa.'s 2022 candidates for governor
The GOP gubernatorial field is a sprawling contrast to the one-man Democratic race. The Republican candidates include Barletta; Guy Ciarrocchi, CEO of the Chester County Chamber of Commerce; Jake Corman, the top Republican in the State Senate; Joe Gale, a Montgomery County commissioner; GOP strategist Charlie Gerow; state Sen. Scott Martin (R., Lancaster); former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain; Allegheny County attorney Jason Richey, and former Delaware County council member Dave White.
Like Mastriano, former U.S. House member Melissa Hart is expected to formally launch her bid in early January, which would make her the only woman in the field.
Republicans widely expect that pack to thin early in the new year, when gubernatorial candidates publicly report their fund-raising and give a clearer picture of who has a chance, and who doesn’t.
An endorsement from the state party could also help provide clarity in either race, though some predict that the GOP may wind up too torn to give anyone the official nod. With so many candidates, some Republicans worry that a candidate with a relatively small but dedicated following could win with just a small percentage of a fractured vote.