GETTYSBURG — Malcolm Kenyatta needed a place to pitch his underdog campaign for U.S. Senate. He chose a monument to fallen Civil War soldiers from Pennsylvania to compare one moment of national reckoning to another.
“It’s not lost on me as a Black man, as a descendant of the enslaved, that the outcome of the pivotal battle fought here … held at its core the question of my very humanity,” Kenyatta said last week at Gettysburg National Military Park, his voice rising as he poked at the humid summer air for emphasis. “It’s not lost on me that the battle in which we are currently embroiled has at its core similar questions. Will we have a democracy? And will it work for working people?”
It was a powerful and carefully crafted moment for Kenyatta, a charismatic orator who regularly goes viral with his impassioned speeches in Harrisburg and often appears on MSNBC.
The question political observers are asking — with some justified skepticism — is whether a 30-year-old state representative from North Philadelphia who has yet to show real fund-raising prowess can turn that series of campaign moments into a viable (and expensive) statewide Senate run.
As Kenyatta spoke, a trickle of tourists, some on Segways and others driving by, stopped to listen.
“I just thought he was incredible,” said Barbara Reilly, a lawyer and history buff from Pittsburgh who was touring the battlefield with her husband. “It was a brilliant setting … to see a Black man standing there, after days of hearing about young kids dying here for a cause they believed in, it’s a full-circle moment.”
Kenyatta, a second-term Democrat, is hoping that if he finds enough stages — whether at lecterns in state parks or on MSNBC — then enough people like Reilly will support him.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman of Braddock is raising money at a rapid clip and is widely seen as a Democratic front-runner, while Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh has the support of the influential Democratic women’s group EMILY’s List. U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb of Allegheny County is also widely expected to run, and would bring both a Joe Biden-esque political profile to the race as well as wider recognition thanks to his 2018 special election win in a Trump-friendly district.
Incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey isn’t seeking reelection.
Kenyatta, who would be Pennsylvania’s first Black and first openly gay U.S. senator, rose to prominence last year as a Biden surrogate and is known for passionate defenses of voting rights and calls to raise the minimum wage.
It remains to be seen if that’s enough to make him a competitive candidate in one of the country’s most critical 2022 Senate races.
“He has been successful in raising his profile and being part of the conversation,” said J.J. Balaban, a longtime Pennsylvania Democratic strategist who isn’t yet working for a Senate candidate. “But that is different [from] being the nominee … and he has not shown that he is likely to be the nominee.”
David Dix, a Pennsylvania political consultant who has worked with candidates in both parties, said the race is wide open and Kenyatta starts with a national profile some others don’t have. Dix said he’s been impressed with Kenyatta’s far-flung travel, picking up tiny but early endorsements across the state.
“Money matters very little at this point in the race,” Dix said. “The person who gets to as many of the 67 counties as possible, who starts to build operations and relationships in those places, that’s important. Everyone’s raising money just to spend it on TV nine months from now.”
At Gettysburg, videographers from Kenyatta’s campaign team documented his tour of the grounds with a small but passionate group of supporters who had come to listen. Only one journalist showed up for the speech, which quoted Maya Angelou, Abraham Lincoln, and Kenyatta’s mother, Kelly, who died on July 4, 2017.
“Can he just win now?” asked Shanna Danielson, brushing away tears when he’d finished. Danielson, a former teacher from Cumberland County, lost a state Senate race last year.
“We really, really want to see this happen,” said Nicolas O’Rourke, organizing director of the far-left Working Families Party in Pennsylvania.
One important measure of Kenyatta’s prospects will come Thursday, when quarterly campaign-finance filings are due.
Fetterman’s campaign has said it raised $2.5 million in the three months through June. Arkoosh raised $1 million. Kenyatta’s campaign hasn’t yet said how much it raised after he trailed well behind Fetterman in the previous quarter. Another unimpressive quarter could raise doubts about his viability. But he acknowledged in Gettysburg that he’s likely to be behind again.
“We have the best plane, but in a lot of ways we have a lot of runway to build, and that’s OK,” he said in an interview.
Kenyatta writes his own speeches, and his campaign staff is comfortable leaving him alone to talk to reporters or mingle with tourists.
He’s had more than 20 appearances on MSNBC in the last two years. Fiery floor speeches slamming Harrisburg Republicans for their handling of the coronavirus or accusing them of voter suppression have often gone viral, leading to attention from the liberal social news network NowThis — and more airtime on MSNBC.
As Kenyatta walked into a downtown Gettysburg diner after his speech last Tuesday, one woman recognized him. “I’ve seen you on TV!” she said. She and her husband, both from Virginia, took a selfie with him.
Few others seemed to know what he was running for, though they were happy to give him a quick handshake before returning to their hash browns. Kenyatta said his plan this summer is to go everywhere he can to introduce himself to voters and do more listening than talking.
It’s unclear how well-known Kenyatta is beyond the more progressive, cable-news watching voters.
“By and large, the Democratic primary electorate isn’t watching MSNBC,” Balaban said. “Being popular on Twitter and being on MSNBC can help with some elites and can help raise money but hasn’t been shown to translate into votes.”
Kenyatta is increasingly casting himself as a defender against the GOP drive for more voting restrictions.
”I face head-on some of the worst actors in the battle to secure our republic,” Kenyatta said in his Gettysburg speech. “In response, the Republican majority in Harrisburg has tried to shut me up. They’ve threatened to throw me out. They’ve turned off my mic … but you cannot strike out the truth.”
He has an eight-point “plan to preserve democracy,” which includes ending the Senate filibuster, creating a civilian democracy corps to teach civics and combat misinformation, and a national day of remembrance to be held every Jan. 6, the date of the deadly Capitol insurrection.
Kenyatta’s Democratic opponents would likely agree with much of what he’s pushing — even Lamb, seen as the likely standard-bearer in the race for more moderate Democrats, supports nixing the filibuster. But Kenyatta is hoping his delivery resonates.
“People want leaders who speak passionately and clearly about the threat that we face right now,” Kenyatta said after his speech. “There’s a whole new battlefield, a whole new theater of engagement, and it’s just as pivotal and just as scary if we don’t get it right.”