Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate Primary Shows Trump’s Lingering Influence

There are still six months to go before the primary election to determine who will run for retiring Sen. Patrick Toomey’s seat, but the race so far shows that Donald Trump is still a dominating force in Republican politics and that his influence shapes candidates’ campaign strategies. The four leading candidates in terms of fundraising and publicity have all touted their ties to the former president or are running campaigns that hit on Trumpian themes.

The early frontrunners are real estate developer Jeff Bartos and Army veteran Sean Parnell, who announced in March and May, respectively. Bartos, who unsuccessfully ran to be lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania in 2020, has toed the Trump line on some issues while sticking to pocketbook issues and making President Joe Biden the main foil of his campaign. The Philadelphia Inquirer followed Bartos on a bus trip around the state earlier this year and pointed to examples of the candidate drumming up support by leaning into culture war issues and using his business acumen to make the economy the central focus. 

Two other prominent candidates are Carla Sands, Trump’s ambassador to Denmark, and Kathy Barnette, a veteran and conservative commentator who appears frequently on Fox News, who hopes to become the first black Republican woman elected to the U.S. Senate.

But Parnell was seen as the favorite from the Trump camp from the beginning. A frequent Fox News guest and speaker at the 2020 Republican National Convention, Parnell narrowly lost a bid to become the congressman in Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District.

And Trump announced in September that he was endorsing Parnell, issuing a statement that Parnell “got robbed in his congressional run in the Crime of the Century—the 2020 Presidential Election.” In response, it didn’t take Bartos long to dig up dirt on Parnell. No less than a week after Trump announced his endorsement of Parnell, the Bartos team highlighted details of Parnell’s checkered history with women. 

Bartos brought to light two temporary protection-from-abuse orders from 2017 and 2018 Parnell’s ex-wife, Laurie, took out against him. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported rumors of the orders had been floating for months, but Bartos was the first to publicize the documents. Neither order was ever extended after hearings were held, and both were ultimately expunged from Parnell’s record. 

Along with the orders, Bartos pointed to sexist comments Parnell made about women on Fox News as a commentator. Bartos’ campaign called Parnell “unelectable” and said if Parnell got the nomination he would “eliminate” Republicans from holding the seat in a general election. 

The Parnell campaign did not respond to a request for comment from The Dispatch. 

The saga did not end there. After the revelations about the protection-from-abuse orders came to light Parnell asked the court for a gag order on legal proceedings pertaining to his ongoing divorce and custody battle with his wife. Besides certain aspects dealing with the couple’s three children, a judge denied most of the request, leaving Parnell’s estranged wife free to talk about her and the candidate’s past relationship. 

CNN reported over the weekend that Parnell’s personal troubles are cause for concern in Pennsylvania among party officials. Senators and donors are voicing concern to Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee. In addition, CNN said a “credible Republican” is thinking about joining the race because of Parnell’s struggles. 

The field is crowded, with 12 total candidates, and anyone seeking to enter now would be wise to look at what happened to one candidate who attempted to run in the “anti-Trump” lane. Philadelphia native Craig Snyder, a former aide to Sen. Arlen Specter, declared his candidacy on July 28. He withdrew just under nine weeks later. 

“I was just running in a totally separate lane in the race,” he told The Dispatch in an interview this week. He cited fundraising issues as the main cause for his withdrawal, but added that he thinks the GOP primary could still be won by a “common-sense conservative.” 

Pennsylvania Republican strategist Dan Hayward told The Dispatch a path forward for a non-Trumpy candidate is narrower than Snyder posits, “I’m hard-pressed to find that.” He added that in order for a candidate of Snyder’s ilk to break through a lot has to fall into place, “A lot of people have to stay in the race. A lot of people have to run afoul of their own campaigns considering the amount of money that those four at the top will likely bring in.”

The totals raised by the top four candidates do show a wide gap between them and the rest of the field. 

The Bartos campaign pointed to the big grand total “Team Bartos” has amassed overall—$4.5 million cash on hand. “Team Bartos” is more than just the Bartos campaign, however. It combines both the actual campaign and a pro-Bartos Super PAC, Jobs For Our Future. The campaign raised $650,000 in Q3 with more than $400,000 of that coming from Jeff Bartos himself, and the super PAC raised $1,650,000 in that same timeframe, according to the FEC report and the campaign. 

Pennsylvania Republican strategist Dan Hayward told The Dispatch a super PAC with that level of funding could make a difference in the race depending on how the money is used: “That’s an X factor. What’s that going to look like? What messaging are they going to continue to push out there?”

Parnell, meanwhile, is highlighting his many small donors  The Parnell campaign rode the Trump endorsement to a third-quarter fundraising total of $1.1 million. According to the Washington Examiner, Parnell “received more than 16,000 contributions from 10,000-plus donors who gave an average of $60 each.”

Sands made headlines earlier this month by announcing she’d put $3 million of her own fortune into her campaign. Barnette actually out-raised all of her opponents in the second fundraising quarter, however could not keep the momentum going this round. She raised just over $192,000 in Q3—a sharp decrease from almost $600,000 the previous quarter. 

When asked who of those two candidates has any shot at the nomination Hayward pointed to Sands’ pledge to spend so much of her own money as a possible reason: “If anyone does I would say Carla Sands. $3 million is a lot of reasons you’re able to break through.”

Longtime GOP political consultant in Pennsylvania, Christopher Nicholas, told The Dispatch Trump’s endorsement matters, but there’s still a long way to go until the day of the primary: “People are going to learn a lot more about these candidates between now and the primary in May. While the Trump endorsement will be very important, especially for fundraising, it remains to be seen how much it impacts an election six months away.” 

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