Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney is considering a run for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat next year, according to a source with direct knowledge of his thinking, even as he continues to also weigh a possible campaign for governor.
“The priority is the pandemic and getting everybody vaccinated. That’s his primary focus, among other issues,” the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations with Kenney. “But the governor’s race and possibly the Senate race are considerations.”
The long list of Pennsylvania politicians whose names are already being floated as potential 2022 candidates for open seats in Washington and Harrisburg can be split into two groups: candidates likely to actually launch campaigns, and those seeking the political boost that can come from just expressing interest.
Time will tell if Kenney is a serious candidate — or just serious about being considered a candidate. In a wide-ranging interview Tuesday, Kenney said a run for higher office is “not my plan at the moment.”
“The future remains to be seen,” he said, adding that he didn’t decide to run for mayor six years ago until relatively late in the election cycle.
Kenney political adviser Brandon Evans said in a statement Friday that “while the governor’s office or the U.S. Senate may be future considerations for Mayor Kenney, he is focused right now on confronting COVID-19 — getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible — and reviving the city’s economy.”
Kenney first emerged as a potential gubernatorial contender in late 2019, just before he easily secured a second term in City Hall.
Many city and state political watchers doubt Kenney will ultimately pull the trigger on a statewide run. Kenney began his second term last year and cannot run for a third, meaning his influence in City Hall could wane as he wades further into lame-duck status.
“In the world of politics, having your name in the mix is always important,” said City Councilmember Maria Quiñones Sánchez, a Democrat and frequent Kenney critic. “No one wants to embrace a lame-duck status. For the people around him, it is very important that his name continues to be out there.”
Under the city’s Home Rule Charter, Kenney would have to resign as mayor to begin campaigning for another office, and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke would become mayor.
Kenney fueled speculation that he may run for statewide office last summer when he launched a statewide political action committee that he told supporters would be used to boost progressive candidates. That’s a standard political move to build support and name recognition.
The PAC has raised $95,000, almost entirely in large checks from labor unions, according to the campaign finance website Transparency USA — including $25,000 from the local carpenters union and $5,000 from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
Pennsylvania’s Senate race is already considered one of the most competitive in the country and will help determine which party controls the chamber after the midterm elections. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Lehigh Valley Republican, announced in October that he won’t seek a third term or run for governor in 2022. A stampede of candidates in both parties are expected to run.
The gubernatorial race is also expected to draw a large number of candidates, with Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, term-limited against running again. State Attorney General Josh Shapiro is widely seen as the early Democratic front-runner in that contest.
No clear front-runner has emerged in the Democratic primary for the Senate race, although Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is making a play for the role. Fetterman, who is from Braddock and unsuccessfully sought the party’s Senate nomination in 2016, announced his interest in the race two weeks ago. He said Friday that he’s raised more than $925,000 in campaign cash since then.
The cast of potential Democratic Senate candidates could present challenges for Kenney.
State Sen. Sharif Street, for instance, has expressed an interest and could encroach on the mayor’s geographic base. State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia, U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Chester County, and Montgomery County Commissioner Valerie Arkoosh are also said to be eyeing the race, which could further divide Democratic support in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
And Fetterman may complicate any hopes Kenney has of running as the most progressive candidate in the field — a mantle that was already in danger following widespread criticism of the city’s heavy-handed response to last summer’s protests against police brutality.
“People [in the progressive movement] are not particularly excited about him pursuing higher offices,” said Amanda McIllmurray, political director for the progressive group Reclaim Philadelphia. “He really let the Philadelphia community down in the summer in response to the uprisings.”
Former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, a Hazleton Republican who may run for governor, served four terms in the House before unsuccessfully challenging Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) in 2018. If he runs to replace Wolf, he expects to face Shapiro, who Barletta said “has pretty well filled the lane for governor” among Democrats in the state.
Barletta said the lack of a “clear-cut leader” in the Senate primaries will draw many potential candidates, including some who will likely never enter the race.
“I think you’re always going to have some candidates who may not have serious intentions but want to begin to get statewide name ID,” Barletta said. “One way to build it is to float your name even if you don’t have an intention of running. I think you’re going to see a lot of that, people now saying they have interest but in the end bowing out.”
Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.