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Where the Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidates do and don’t agree

Rhetorical style and choices about which policies to emphasize can magnify differences that are often minimal and sometimes nonexistent in a partisan primary. We broke it down for you.

Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate candidats, left to right: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb.
Pennsylvania's Democratic Senate candidats, left to right: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb.Read moreMonica Herndon, Jose Moreno, Tom Gralish

Democrats running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania spend a lot of time talking about why they’re the candidate who can win the state in a general election. They also tout such policy priorities as voting rights and helping working families. But there’s significantly less discussion of policy differences.

That’s typical of a partisan primary, where arguments about political viability resonate with more engaged voters. Rhetorical style and choices about which policies to emphasize can magnify differences that are often minimal and sometimes nonexistent.

“It’s a reflection of the incredibly partisan moment we’re in,” said Chris Borick, a pollster and political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “Electing a Republican, for a lot of Democrats, is simply not acceptable. So you start focusing on the other key matter: electability.”

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman casts himself as able to unite rural working-class and progressive voters. U.S. Rep Conor Lamb says he can re-create Joe Biden’s 2020 coalition. State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta argues he can excite young voters and voters of color.

But it’s hard to find major differences in the positions they currently hold.

Lamb, first elected to Congress in a conservative-leaning Western Pennsylvania district, has a voting record that started as more centrist but became more consistently Democratic. Past positions on issues including the minimum wage, gun control, tax cuts, and immigration will likely draw more scrutiny before the May 17 primary.

“When I was representing a district that Trump had won by 19 points, that can’t help but rub off on you a little bit,” Lamb told the progressive group Indivisible Narberth in a virtual forum in September, which was recorded and shared with The Inquirer. “So if some of my votes end up looking different than colleagues of mine in [strongly Democratic] districts, that’s almost inevitable. … What I can promise you is if I’m your senator … I’ll do the best to vote in accordance with what I have learned is best for the state.”

Lamb has more than three years of House votes to scrutinize. Kenyatta’s shorter voting record in Harrisburg largely reflects opposition to Republicans who control the legislature. Fetterman doesn’t have a legislative record.

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Democrats running for president in 2020 had to answer difficult questions about Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and police funding, sparking debates about the direction of the party.

Voters haven’t yet seen Pennsylvania’s Senate candidates face off in debates, which can illuminate policy disagreements.

Here’s some of what we know, from talking to the campaigns, reviewing their written positions, and watching candidate interviews and forums.

What Fetterman, Lamb, and Kenyatta agree on

Big items include many Democratic litmus tests: raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, ending the filibuster, and defending abortion rights and voting rights.

Kenyatta has said voting rights, health care, and climate change are his top three priorities. Lamb lists voting rights, income inequality, and climate. Fetterman has recently highlighted voting rights, marijuana legalization, and banning lawmakers from owning stocks.

All three have said they would be staunch defenders of abortion rights, including by overturning a ban on federal funding of abortions and only backing judicial nominees who support abortion rights. Lamb, who is Catholic, has said he personally opposes abortion, but his voting record gets an A+ rating from Planned Parenthood, and the National Organization for Women endorsed him last week.

Gun control

All three candidates say they would vote for an assault-weapon ban, expanded gun background checks, limits on high-capacity magazines, and “red flag” legislation allowing for temporary removals of firearms for people who present a danger to themselves or others.

Lamb opposed a 2018 assault-weapons ban. A former federal prosecutor, he criticized the bill then for its focus on a type of weapon used to commit only 3% of gun crimes before movement on background checks and other loopholes. He has said that he’s talked to parents and become a father himself since then, and now better appreciates the outsize impact of school shootings and now supports a ban.

Health care

Fetterman and Kenyatta have been careful not to fully embrace Medicare for All, which has galvanized the left in recent years. Although they have said they support universal health care, they’ve also said they support anything that expands access and affordability.

“We need to get there,” Kenyatta told The Inquirer. “The debate between Bernie [Sanders] and Elizabeth Warren highlights the fact that there’s multiple ways to get there. … There’s issues right now with our health insurance system that we could fix.”

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

Fetterman has similarly said he supports health-care relief, in whatever form.

“If Medicare for All needed my vote to pass in the U.S. Senate, I would,” Fetterman said last summer. “But if a public option that would create access for everybody needed my vote to pass, I would.”

Lamb has called Medicare for All as currently proposed an incomplete program that lacks a $30 trillion financing plan. He’s also spoken about the lack of political will to pass it, given Democrats’ struggles in passing a much narrower bill he sponsored lowering the Medicare eligibility age to 60.

What Fetterman, Lamb, and Kenyatta disagree on

Marijuana legalization

Fetterman has made legalizing recreational marijuana a top priority. He famously hung a marijuana leaf flag outside the state Capitol and went on a marijuana “listening tour.” He says he’d push to legalize pot at the federal level.

Kenyatta also supports federal legalization and has advocated for more diverse representation in who gets commercial marijuana licenses.

Lamb says he supports states and localities decriminalizing marijuana and he supports legalizing medical marijuana. He was one of six Democrats who voted against a federal decriminalization bill, though, which he said lacked the kind of regulations that would be necessary to protect people and businesses.

“It just took marijuana completely out of federal law,” Lamb said on a PoliticsPA podcast last month. “If you think about … a construction crew and a bill like that goes into law where just all of the sudden there’s no rules on marijuana and half of your crew shows up positive for cannabis and they’re supposed to be running heavy equipment ... you’re not gonna know what to do.”


Hydraulic fracturing, the natural gas extraction process that employs 30,000 to 50,000 people in Pennsylvania, has long been a contentious issue in the state.

Kenyatta is the only one of the three who says he would support a moratorium on new fracking sites. He also supports an end to tax breaks for oil, gas, and coal producers in the state.

Lamb and Fetterman, who hail from Western Pennsylvania, where fracking has given some areas an economic boost, both oppose any ban, favoring a more gradual transition from natural gas.

“We need to be honest about the fact that natural gas is a critical bridge fuel that helps us keep people warm and keep the lights on at a price people can afford, and it is American-made,” Lamb says on his campaign website.

» READ MORE: Conor Lamb’s challenge: Build his name. Take down Fetterman. And do it all with less money.

Fetterman’s rhetoric on the issue has shifted. In his 2016 Senate campaign, he said “there’s no such thing as a green fracker,” and he supported gradually instituting a moratorium on new fracking. In 2020, he cautioned presidential candidates against taking a hard line against fracking. He’s called it a “false choice” that Pennsylvanians have to pick between jobs and climate.

“Climate change is an existential threat, and we need to transition to clean energy as quickly as possible,” Fetterman campaign spokesperson Joe Calvello said. “We also have to preserve the union way of life for the thousands of workers currently employed by the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania and the communities where they live. We can’t just abandon these people, and tell them to go learn how to code.”

Other issues

Kenyatta supports abolishing the Electoral College. Lamb and Fetterman do not.

Kenyatta is open to increasing the number of Supreme Court justices as well as other changes, including a mandatory retirement age or term limits. Lamb and Fetterman have said they wouldn’t expand the court but would consider other changes.