Pennsylvania’s sprawling Republican primaries for governor and U.S. Senate are staying wide open.
Republican activists voted Saturday against making state party endorsements in the critical races, declining to elevate individual candidates in two fractious contests where no one has stood out as a clear-cut front-runner.
An endorsement might have provided a measure of clarity in the two nationally watched elections, since the state party’s chosen picks almost always go on to win the GOP nomination. Instead, the vote in Lancaster by members of the GOP state committee left the Republican primaries as jumbled as ever, with more than a dozen vying for the gubernatorial nomination and more than six running for Senate.
The unusual vote against a state party endorsement, sealed by a voice vote, both reflects and amplifies the unruly nature of the races. With so many contenders, it has been hard for any one candidate to clearly separate themselves.
It has been decades since the state GOP declined to make an endorsement in such major primaries. Several Pennsylvania Republicans grumbled privately that the failure to wrangle a recommendation to voters, in such a critical year for the GOP and with so many candidates battling for the nominations, reflected the diminishing power of the state party and its leadership.
Others argued that this gives rank-and-file GOP voters a stronger hand in the May primary. Vince Matteo, chairman of the Lycoming County GOP in northern Pennsylvania, said the vote reflected how many strong candidates are running for Senate, governor, and lieutenant governor.
“I think we have some really good candidates. I haven’t made up my mind personally in any one of the three races,” Matteo said, adding that an endorsement would have only divided the party. “Why should the party anoint one, if you will?”
The two marquee races have drawn a wide range of contenders and a slew of early attack ads, signaling a long and brutal primary ahead.
Heading into the weekend, unofficial regional straw polls held by members of the GOP state committee pointed to strong party activist support for Montgomery County developer Jeff Bartos for Senate and former Delaware County Councilman Dave White for governor. They had fared best in those nonbinding forums. But large numbers of committee members also voted against a state party endorsement in those regional gatherings, signaling Saturday’s likely outcome.
Still, some GOP insiders argued that both White and Bartos had now missed a chance to elevate their profiles and that the nonendorsement could be particularly hurtful to Bartos. He can’t match the lavish spending by rivals Mehmet Oz and David McCormick, widely seen as the top contenders in the Senate race, but might have used a state party nod to catapult himself.
Bartos’ campaign pointed to the results of the earlier regional caucuses as evidence of his grassroots strength, noting that an endorsement was always unlikely for any contender.
“Republicans prefer an actual Pennsylvanian, an actual conservative to slick TV ads from out-of-state pretenders,” said Bartos campaign manager Conor McGuinness.
One of White’s rivals, State Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R., Centre), used Saturday’s result to downplay White’s straw-poll victories.
“Some campaigns are likely going to be disappointed after chasing headlines to tout straw polls. This is going to be a long process to November,” Corman said in a statement.
The wide-ranging GOP fields reflect how Republicans see a major opportunity in a year when the political environment looks hugely favorable to their party. The governor’s race will likely decide if Repubicans win full control of state government in Harrisburg, an outcome that could lead to sweeping policy changes on issues including voting laws and abortion.
The GOP gubernatorial primary features three state senators, two former U.S. House members, an ex-U.S. attorney, and many others. Attorney General Josh Shapiro is the only major Democratic candidate. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, is term-limited.
The Senate primary is awash in money, with several ultra-wealthy candidates already pouring in huge amounts of television spending. That includes Oz, the celebrity surgeon known as “Dr. Oz,” and McCormick, a former hedge fund CEO and Army veteran, along with allied super PACs that are going on the attack in the name of the two candidates. One supporting McCormick, Honor Pennsylvania, has purchased an eye-popping $12 million of airtime over the next six weeks to hammer Oz.
The Senate race is one of a handful that could decide control of the chamber and, with it, the fate of much of President Joe Biden’s agenda after this year. Incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey isn’t seeking reelection, creating an opening that Democrats hope can help them keep control of the 50-50 Senate.
Besides Oz, McCormick, and Bartos, the major Republican candidates in the Senate race include former Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands, conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, and Philadelphia attorney George Bochetto.
Pennsylvania Democrats last week endorsed Shapiro for governor, but did not endorse in their Senate primary. U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, of the Pittsburgh area, won the most votes from state party committee members but didn’t reach the two-thirds threshold for an endorsement, reflecting Democrats’ own contentious primary fight.
Staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.