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5 takeaways from Thursday’s Pennsylvania Democratic Senate debate

Conor Lamb and Malcolm Kenyatta seized moments throughout the night to challenge front-runner John Fetterman’s electability, his progressive bona fides, and his temperament.

Left to right, Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidates Conor Lamb, John Fetterman, and Malcolm Kenyatta just before the start of a debate Thursday night at abc27 studios in Harrisburg.
Left to right, Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidates Conor Lamb, John Fetterman, and Malcolm Kenyatta just before the start of a debate Thursday night at abc27 studios in Harrisburg.Read moreCourtesy: PHL17

The two underdogs finally had their shot at the front-runner Thursday night, in a Pennsylvania Democratic Senate debate between U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, and Lt. Gov John Fetterman.

Fetterman, joining Lamb and Kenyatta on a debate stage for the first time just weeks before the May 17 primary, appeared less polished than his rivals and uncomfortable with their frequent criticism. But he didn’t make any missteps likely to change the dynamics of a contest he’s been winning from the start.

The one-hour televised debate at ABC27 studios in Harrisburg seemed to move at a lightning pace. The candidates went back and forth on health care, gun control, marijuana, fracking, and more.

Here’s what we saw.

Fetterman didn’t seem entirely prepared for Pile On The Front-runner

Fetterman came into the debate up a couple dozen points in a race where his lead has never wavered. But he’s campaigned in a way that had, until now, largely shielded him from scrutiny on a big stage.

Fetterman’s campaign said he skipped the first debate in early April in favor of doing one that would reach a larger audience. He got that Thursday, but he seemed more uncomfortable than his competitors and struggled at times to answer questions he likely knew were coming his way.

Lamb and Kenyatta seized moments throughout the night to challenge Fetterman’s electability, his progressive bona fides, and his temperament. On the whole, Lamb and Kenyatta, both sitting lawmakers, unlike Fetterman, came off better versed in policy and legislation.

» READ MORE: John Fetterman doesn’t just have supporters — he has fans. His celebrity could make him a senator.

In one of the first questions of the night, Fetterman was asked what threshold he would put on a wealth tax. “You know it when you see it,” he said. Kenyatta and Lamb said they’d support a tax that kicks into effect for earners making about $500,000.

“We here are running for the position of senator in which we have to write legislation and pass it,” Lamb responded. “The answer that, ‘You know it when you see it,’ it’s just not acceptable for this level of job.”

“I wish I could write a bill that says, ‘You know it when you see it,’ ” Kenyatta said later.

Fetterman countered: “We’re talking about high-net-worth individuals. This idea that you can pick a precise number on a debate stage in 30 seconds is disingenuous.”

Later, after Fetterman said he’d never taken a dime from the fossil fuel industry, Kenyatta criticized him for adopting pro-fracking stances.

“You haven’t taken a dime, but you’ve taken their positions, which is all the big oil and gas companies want you to do,” Kenyatta said. “So really, you know, this is a cheap date.”

For Fetterman, though, the question is will any of that matter. Being unpolished is part of his appeal to voters.

Fetterman is sticking to his story

One question Fetterman knew was coming was about a 2013 incident that has loomed over his campaign, in which Fetterman, then the mayor of Braddock, pulled a shotgun on a Black jogger whom he had wrongly suspected of a shooting.

Fetterman defended his actions that day the exact same way he has time and again. When asked by the moderator if he’d do anything differently, he said, “It’s certainly not a situation anyone would want to be in.”

While the incident has been rehashed numerous times during the campaign, this was likely the first time many voters had heard about it — and the first time Fetterman addressed it while taking criticism from his rivals face-to-face. And while Fetterman has maintained he did nothing wrong that day, his refusal to apologize was highlighted center stage when Kenyatta, the only Black candidate in the Democratic field, turned to him and asked him directly if he would:

“For somebody who has cut an image of an incredibly tough guy, you’re so afraid of two little words, ‘I’m sorry.’ ”

Fetterman looked straight ahead and said, “There was no profiling or anything involved.” As he has many times, he held up his reelection in Braddock, a majority-Black city, as a kind of exoneration. “I never pointed the weapon at the individual, and everyone in Braddock knows,” he said.

“John, we get it. You have a Black friend,” Kenyatta said. “The question is … are you gonna say I’m sorry today?”

When Fetterman said that as a mayor he was the only candidate who had directly combatted gun violence, Kenyatta shot back, “You’re the only Democrat who used a shotgun to chase down an unarmed Black man.”

It’s unclear whether his defense of his actions nine years ago will hurt Fetterman. But it certainly showcased a stubbornness that has frustrated some Democrats, who worry how he’ll handle even sharper attacks from Republicans in a general election, and who think he could ease a major liability if he exhibited some contrition.

Lamb stumped for stability

Measured, composed, even-keeled, Lamb set out to project “senator.”

“One thing I know in my bones is how swing voters feel about many of these issues because I’ve actually won their votes before,” Lamb said at one point. “They’re looking for stability and caution in their leadership,”

It spoke both to his own pitch, and the questions he hoped to raise about Fetterman’s readiness.

Lamb repeatedly pointed to his experience in Congress, arguing that he would bring the detailed policy knowledge and the demeanor to serve in the Senate.

» READ MORE: We're tracking the candidates running for Senate in Pennsylvania

He fended off questions about past comments against some proposed gun restrictions by saying he’d voted for every tougher gun law that came before him in Congress. He praised President Joe Biden’s approach to Ukraine as “cautious and mature,” and he said any push to legalize marijuana needed to be done carefully and slowly.

And when talking about energy he studiously described a three-legged stool aimed at fighting climate change, making energy affordable, and creating jobs.

Through it all, Lamb tried to drive home that Fetterman is too big a risk, and that a more traditional candidate, with more typical qualities and experience, is the best way for Democrats to win.

“If I’m asked a question about tax rates, I’ll answer it, or any other subject,” he said. “And I think that’s gonna lead us” to success.

Kenyatta made it personal

It’s a line you don’t hear often in a U.S. Senate debate: “Got my first job at 12 washing dishes in a little vegan soul food restaurant,” Kenyatta said.

It was his closing in the debate’s final moments, but it reflected the tactic Kenyatta used throughout the night to distinguish himself from rivals who have led him in polls and fund-raising. Over and over, he tied policy questions to his personal story, describing how, growing up in a working-class family in Philadelphia, he had lived the challenges that Democrats as a party say they want to address.

In doing so, Kenyatta tried to flip one of the central political questions around his candidacy — will Pennsylvania really elect a young, gay, Black man from Philadelphia? — into a strength.

“What’s heartbreaking for me is I can leave this debate and go home tonight to North Philadelphia and have another person gunned down in my neighborhood,” he said during an exchange on gun violence.

» READ MORE: Malcolm Kenyatta is tired of being told a Black gay man from North Philly can’t win Pa.

On health care, he described seeing his mother ration insulin, going to the emergency room for basic care, and both of his parents dying by the time he was 27, “just because they didn’t have the type of health care everybody deserves.”

And over and over, Kenyatta argued that he, not Fetterman, is the true progressive in the race.

“We need a government that reflects us and reflects the people who are most impacted by things like this,” he said.

It summed up his entire argument for his long-shot candidacy.

We really should cover some policy

As we’ve seen throughout this race, there aren’t major policy differences between the candidates. Most of the back and forth was about who was best equipped to win a general election and who had the background and temperament best suited to the job.

There were a few exceptions. Lamb opposes federal legalization of marijuana, which Kenyatta and Fetterman both support. Lamb said he thinks there should be a gradual approach to any legalization at the federal level. He voted for decriminalization, despite previously voting against it.

Kenyatta remains the only candidate who wants to put a moratorium on new fracking permits, whereas Lamb and Fetterman don’t support bans on natural gas extraction.

And only Kenyatta said he agreed with Biden’s decision to revoke Title 42, which imposed pandemic-era border restrictions on asylum seekers.

There was also some disagreement on Philadelphia’s decision to reinstate its mask mandate. Kenyatta and Fetterman were against it. Lamb said the city had a right to determine its own guidelines.

Just as the debate was ending, the city announced it was lifting the mandate.