Sean Parnell, a decorated combat veteran and favorite of former President Donald Trump, is all but certain to run for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, according to a Republican official who spoke with Parnell this week.
“He said he was 99% sure this is what he was going to do,” said Sam DeMarco, the Republican chairman in Allegheny County, where Parnell came up just short in a high-profile bid for Congress last year. “If he does make that decision, he’s going to be a formidable candidate.”
Parnell has begun calling top GOP officials in Pennsylvania to discuss a potential 2022 Senate run and plans to contact all 67 Republican county chairs, according to a person close to him, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversations.
“Sean is increasingly concerned [about] the direction this country is going since Joe Biden became president,” a Parnell spokesperson said. “He is currently speaking with people throughout the state on how he can best stand up for the people of Pennsylvania against the job-killing agenda of this White House.”
If he joins the race, Parnell — who was part of an effort to throw out more than 2.5 million lawful mail votes and overturn the result of Pennsylvania’s presidential election — may have at least some support from Trump’s inner circle, if not from the former president himself.
Parnell “has my support for any office he decides to run for in 2022!!!” Donald Trump Jr. tweeted in February.
The Pennsylvania race could have sweeping national implications. It’s one of a handful likely to decide control of the Senate, which in turn could decide how much, or little, Biden can accomplish in the final two years of his term. Incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is not seeking reelection, creating a wide-open contest in one of the country’s most politically divided states.
Parnell, a former Army Ranger who earned a Bronze Star for valor and a Purple Heart in Afghanistan and became a regular Fox News guest, caught Trump’s eye in 2019. Trump announced support for Parnell’s congressional bid against Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb before Parnell even officially joined that campaign. Parnell spoke at Trump rallies and at the Republican National Convention.
He was also one of the lead plaintiffs in a lawsuit attempting to reverse Pennsylvania’s election result by throwing out nearly all of the state’s mail ballots. The suit alleged that Pennsylvania’s mail voting law, approved with bipartisan support and unchallenged by either party until after Trump lost, was unconstitutional. The state Supreme Court rejected the case, saying it was filed months after the law allowed for challenges, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal. During the 2020 GOP primary, Parnell had touted the state’s mail voting law, calling it “bipartisan.”
Parnell ran against Lamb in a nationally watched congressional race, raising nearly $4 million but narrowly losing by 2 percentage points. He refused to concede.
Some political watchers thought he might run for Congress again, especially since Lamb himself may run for Senate, potentially opening up the suburban Pittsburgh congressional seat. But the unpredictability of the decennial congressional redistricting has created variables that may have influenced Parnell’s thinking. While the district may get more conservative, the lines could also be changed to make it more Democratic.
Several other Republicans are already running, including Montgomery County’s Jeff Bartos, a former candidate for lieutenant governor. Kathy Barnette, who ran for Congress in a Montgomery County-based district last year, launched her campaign this week. And Everett Stern, a self-described whistleblower who founded a private intelligence agency, has also joined the race.
The Democratic field so far includes Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, and Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, with several others still eyeing the race. State Sen. Sharif Street is set to announce an exploratory committee for the race on Friday.
DeMarco argued that Parnell, already well-known in Western Pennsylvania, has the profile and experience to win over many of the rural voters who powered Trump.
“From all the other people that are out there, he definitely would have a leg up the moment he steps in the ring,” DeMarco said.
Bill Bretz, the Republican chair in neighboring Westmoreland County, hadn’t heard from Parnell but said he would make a “compelling candidate.”
“He certainly relates to the people of Southwestern Pennsylvania very well and I think he would have broader appeal across the state,” Bretz said.
Others questioned whether Parnell could succeed statewide after losing in a congressional district that, on paper, leans slightly right. They noted that Trump ties can cut both ways, energizing the former president’s supporters but also his many critics.
“I’m not sure how he would expect to win the Senate nomination if he couldn’t win that district out there,” said Jeff Piccola, the Republican chairman in York County. “I love the president ... but there’s baggage there and a candidate that’s going to just bank on the support of Donald Trump in Pennsylvania and nothing else, I think they’re going to have to broaden their appeal.”
He pointed to Lou Barletta, the former congressman and close Trump ally who ran for Senate in 2018 but lost in a rout.
Jackie Kulback, the GOP chair in Cambria County, said that Trump remains deeply popular in regions like hers and that Parnell’s campaign videos impressed people in her area. But she also pointed to the fierce opposition Trump engenders in areas like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and their populous suburbs.
“He’s a great campaigner and would be a great senator also,” Kulback said of Parnell, but she also touted Bartos as “a rock star” with a great temperament.