Malcolm Kenyatta asks a version of the same question in almost every campaign speech: “Do you want someone who says, ‘Vote for me because you have no choice’? Or, ‘Vote for me because I understand your life’?”
It’s an implicit nod to voters who might see Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate race as a choice between the candidate they want and the one they think can win. Since entering the race one year ago, Kenyatta has been hounded by doubts about whether a Black, openly gay, 31-year-old state representative from North Philadelphia can win Pennsylvania.
His response? Absolutely — not in spite of who he is but because of it.
“We need to start interrogating why this question is almost only asked to candidates of color, women, marginalized candidates,” Kenyatta said in an interview. “Why are the only campaigns we take seriously are the campaigns that are run a certain type of way by the same type of people over and over again?”
Kenyatta has built a campaign around his working-class background — his mom was a nurse, his dad a social worker. He represents the neighborhood where he grew up, one of the poorest in Philadelphia. He says his story will resonate with Democrats feeling disengaged from or dismissed by the party — and overcome big financial obstacles in what’s increasingly a three-person primary contest against Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb.
In a Democratic field with two white men from more affluent backgrounds — and a GOP race that includes at least four millionaires — Kenyatta stands out. He’d be Pennsylvania’s first Black U.S. senator.
“The unfair questions Malcolm was getting about money and viability early on came from establishment types not wanting to say out loud that they’re afraid Malcolm is too young, too Black, or too gay to win statewide,” said Brendan McPhillips, who ran Joe Biden’s presidential campaign in Pennsylvania. “Frankly, that’s an indictment of Pennsylvania’s political establishment, whose track record shows a great ability to circle the wagons around lackluster candidates who go on to lose general elections.”
McPhillips, who ran Fetterman’s unsuccessful 2016 Senate campaign and isn’t currently working for a candidate in this race, said there’s a “pathological fear of new faces and approaches that might actually excite Democratic voters.”
“It shows a lack of respect for the intelligence of voters who might dare to want something different,” McPhillips said.
Kenyatta has raised much less campaign cash than Fetterman and Lamb. Minimal polling so far suggests he’s narrowly behind or tied with Lamb — but both trail Fetterman by double digits. He’s less well-known than Fetterman, who has run two statewide races, and arguably Lamb, whose 2018 special election win got national attention.
Another challenge is a potential disconnect between some Democrats’ enthusiasm for him and their assumptions about who can win in November — his so-called electability. Pennsylvania is older and whiter than most states, but its electorate has become younger and more diverse over the last decade.
Pennsylvania has never had a senator or governor who is Black or a woman. In more than a dozen interviews with Kenyatta supporters and neutral observers, there was an undercurrent of frustration that the party could nominate two straight white men for Senate and governor.
At rallies like one Friday in Chester County, where he was endorsed by 40 elected officials there, Kenyatta recalled his mother rationing her insulin and working two jobs to keep food on the table and the lights on. He often tears up talking about losing both his parents at a young age, something he partly blames on a lack of quality health care. Kenyatta, who got married this month, says being gay and Black helps him relate to people who might look nothing like him but know discrimination.
“I know ... in my bones that there are more people in Pennsylvania who see themselves in his experiences than see themselves in the experience of privileged people who get to Congress ... because they’re attached to big money,” State Rep. Danielle Friel Otten (D., Chester) said at the Friday rally.
Both supporters and skeptics credit Kenyatta for running an aggressive campaign despite minimal resources — showing up all over the state and building a broad coalition of endorsers. He’s outlasted better-funded candidates like Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh.
Geography may be Kenyatta’s biggest asset in the primary, said Jake Sternberger, who ran Joe Sestak’s unsuccessful 2016 Senate campaign. He’ll have “Philadelphia” next to his name on the ballot against Fetterman and Lamb, both from Allegheny County. About half the state’s Democratic voters are in Southeastern Pennsylvania. “Geography absolutely matters,” Sternberger said.
On the other hand, Fetterman has demonstrated robust statewide support through small-dollar fund-raising, and Lamb has steadily picked up his own endorsements in the Philadelphia region. And Kenyatta will have to keep scaling up his operation with little money to do it.
“Yes, you need money,” said Philadelphia City Councilmember Kendra Brooks, who backs Kenyatta and won an underdog campaign on the Working Families Party ticket in 2019. “That’s the same thing I heard — there’s no way you’re going to be able to raise money. But people power is capital.”
(Brooks also raised more money than any third-party Council candidate ever.)
State Rep. Donna Bullock (D., Philadelphia), a Kenyatta supporter, said doubters might not appreciate how much voters are looking for a politician who doesn’t fit the typical mold. Kenyatta’s run is part of a wave of Black candidates vying for Senate seats in Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Ohio.
“Folks from different backgrounds relate on other experiences,” she said. “We relate because maybe you have student-loan debt or a minimum-wage job. These are the issues that unite Pennsylvania. Not the fact that you’re a moderate white guy.”
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It also remains to be seen how much support Kenyatta can garner further from home. Democratic chairs in Erie, York, and Northampton Counties said he’s made frequent visits and is becoming familiar to party activists.
“He commands the room,” Erie County Democratic chair Jim Wertz said. “You always have to be careful about who you line up to speak after him.” Still, Wertz said, most people he knows are backing Fetterman or Lamb.
After Kenyatta addressed members of Pennsylvania’s Democratic State Committee last month, Matt Munsey, chair of the Northampton County Democrats, said people ”thought he sorta took the show.”
But when it came time to vote on endorsing a candidate, Kenyatta came in third.
“People loved Elizabeth Warren. They loved Bernie Sanders,” Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant Mustafa Rashed said. “But it comes a time where people look around and say, ‘I don’t know if that person can win.’” (Rashed said he thinks all three Democrats could win in November.)
With surveys showing Democratic voters are less enthusiastic than Republicans heading into the midterm elections, Kenyatta says it’s his opponents’ viability that should be questioned.
“Money is one metric, but if you don’t have a nominee who can really engage Black and brown voters, that’s a problem, who can really engage young voters ... voters in the Southeast ... ,” he said. “And I reject this idea that Pennsylvania is so bigoted they would never vote for me.”