An Early Look at Pennsylvania’s 2022 Senate Race

Two Republicans are vying for former President Trump’s support while the two leading Democrats push progressive agendas.

The election to replace retiring Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey is still a year and a half away, but existing political dynamics are already shaping the field. For the Republicans, President Donald Trump looms over the race as the two candidates getting the most attention are vying for his support. Meanwhile, two Democratic contenders are working to avoid being labeled as progressives—which could make it difficult to win a statewide race—while at the same time calling for a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All, and student debt relief.

Pennsylvania's Senate race stands out even in a midterm that will be highly focused on the upper chamber. History tells us that the opposing party of the sitting president does well in midterm elections, but some early predictions on how the Senate map will shake out indicate it’s going to be a tough fight for either party to gain control of what is presently an evenly divided Senate. 

The GOP has controlled Toomey’s seat, except for a few years when Arlen Specter switched parties, since 1969. But there are only two seats nationwide occupied by a Republican in a state won by Biden in 2020 (the other is held by Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin). Democrats sense an opportunity.

The Trump Factor

Two candidates who are relatively new to politics seem to be garnering the most attention on the Republican side: Jeff Bartos, a real estate developer, and Sean Parnell, a combat veteran, author, and frequent Fox News guest. Neither of them have held elected office, but not for lack of trying. Bartos was the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018, and Parnell ran in 2020 to unseat Rep. Conor Lamb in Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional District. 

Bartos talked to The Dispatch before Parnell got into the race, and played up the role of President Trump in the party: “I think President Trump’s got a strong role to play in the party going forward.” Bartos’ language on Twitter and in interviews sounds more and more Trumpy: He frequently calls out “Big Tech” for stifling free speech, and he recently went on Steve Bannon’s podcast to talk about who he claims to be anti-Semitic on the left. 

In a more recent interview with The Dispatch, Bartos said he would “welcome” Trump’s endorsement and went on to tout how President Trump handled foreign policy while in office. “I would—all day—work with President Trump to talk about those policies and would love his support,” he said.

Hours before Parnell officially announced his run for Senate with a video, the Bartos campaign put out a letter—signed by 19 Republican Pennsylvania state officials, including county chairs and state legislators—urging him not to run for Senate. The letter posited that Bartos was the best chance the GOP had to win the Senate seat and for the GOP to have its overall best showing, Parnell should try again to defeat Lamb. 

The Parnell campaign was ready with a counter, though. Reps. Guy Reschenthaler and Mike Kelly co-authored an op-ed endorsing Parnell for the GOP nomination. “America is at a dangerous crossroads,” they wrote:

Radicals on the left have hijacked Democrats in Washington who are too weak to fight back. Many Republicans have shown an equally fluid spine when facing down the radicals of the left. That is why we simply cannot send another career politician, socialite or out-of-touch multimillionaire to the United States Senate. What we do need are heroes, leaders and fighters. Sean Parnell checks all the boxes, and we fully endorse him to be the Republican nominee and next United States senator from Pennsylvania.

The tone of that op-ed from his allies was consistent with the messaging of Parnell’s own announcement video: “We’ve always had crazy liberals in our politics, but this time they have powerful allies. They’ve bullied large corporations into doing their dirty work. Either we rise to the defense of our founding freedoms, or we’ll be silenced and made defenseless.” 

Parnell did not respond to requests to be interviewed by The Dispatch.

Pennsylvania Republican strategist Dan Hayward told The Dispatch now that Parnell is officially in, it will be interesting to see whether Trump tips the scales in the GOP primary. “The question is going to be how Parnell is able to attract the grassroots,” he said. “What type of national influence does he attract—you know who I'm talking about there—and what does that look like in Pennsylvania?”

Sen. Toomey has been silent on the race to fill his seat. Hayward is skeptical that any endorsement would make much of a difference after Toomey voted to convict Donald Trump of impeachment in January 2021. 

“You never like to say, ‘Hey, a sitting Senator can’t put an endorsement on somebody and it’s not going to matter,’” he said. “I think there are those in the Republican primary voting electorate that would not care.” 

That was definitely true for Washington County GOP Chair Dave Ball, who famously said this of Sen. Toomey after his vote to convict Trump of impeachment in February 2021: “We did not send him there to vote his conscience. We did not send him there to ‘do the right thing’ or whatever he said he was doing.”

While Parnell and Bartos are garnering most of the attention so far, one other potential candidate could shake up the primary. Former Rep. Ryan Costello has expressed an interest in running, and would be the most Trump-skeptical candidate in the race. Costello called out former President Trump in 2018 for “dancing on [the] grave” of purple-district Republicans who didn’t support him and lost. 

Republicans are counting on the state’s recent electoral history and the larger trend of midterm success for out-of-power parties to work in their favor. “Here’s the reality of Pennsylvania, is that Trump won it five years ago, he lost it by a small margin in 2020, we’re going into a midterm election after a new Democrat president—which traditionally is a good cycle for the opposing party,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Chris Hartline told The Dispatch. “We're going to have a shift in the political mood towards our side compared to 2020, and I think Pennsylvania is a very competitive state that we feel very confident that we can win.”

Other lesser-known candidates include Pennsylvania attorney Sean Gale, businessman and finance whistleblower Everett Stern, and Kathy Barnette, a former candidate for Pennsylvania’s 4th District (Madeleine Dean’s district) who rose to prominence by frequently appearing on Fox News. Former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark in the Trump Administration Carla Sands may also enter the race and has been saying she could get Trump’s endorsement in the primary. She was seen at a Republican party event in Huntingdon County with a campaign aide. 

Bartos has cash on hand, with $400,000 of that being a loan from himself. Parnell, who just announced his bid for the seat, did not have to report for the first quarter since he wasn’t yet a declared candidate. His final filing in 2020 showed he had just more than $200,000 cash on hand leftover from his failed House bid. 

To the Left, to the Left

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta told The Dispatch that “I didn’t get into politics to be labeled anything. I’m a poor, black, gay kid from north Philly, I have enough labels.”

Rather than “progressive,” Rep. Kenyatta says he would call himself a “do-something Democrat” who has lived the life of a working person. Although Kenyatta rejects the term “progressive,” many of his policy positions—including a $15 minimum wage, student loan forgiveness, and Medicare-for-all—lean heavily to the left.

“Being a working person is not about what you wear, it's about what you’ve been through. … I didn’t move somewhere and learn that things were broken. I lived in a community where it was broken,” he said. “Whether it’s the lieutenant governor—or anybody else—there is nobody, nobody, nobody in this race who knows in their bones what’s broken the way I have. And who has worked my ass off my entire life to try to fix it. Fix problems that have gotten here because we've had a bunch of career politicians tell us how much they care.”

His reference there is to his main opponent, John Fetterman, the commonwealth’s current lieutenant governor. Fetterman is a larger-than-life figure: a 6-foot-8 tattooed Harvard graduate who prefers cargo shorts to suits, even in his official portrait. In the wake of the 2020 election, Fetterman came to national prominence with frequent cable news hits disputing then-President Trump’s frequent attacks on Pennsylvania’s election results.

Before all that, Fetterman was the mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania. Braddock was a classic example of a booming steel town that suffered huge losses when steel plants moved out of the area. After living there for a few years with his family, Fetterman ran for mayor and won. His focus was to revitalize the streets of Braddock and reduce the crime rate. Rehabilitating criminals is now one of his main policy focal points as lieutenant governor. 

The one big wrench that could still be thrown on the Democratic side is the entrance of Conor Lamb, who was first elected to Congress in 2018 in a special election and then won a full term that fall. He most recently defeated Parnell in 2020, and his entry into the Senate contest would create the possibility of a rematch in a statewide race.

Other candidates that have announced a run for the Democratic nomination are Montgomery County Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh, businessman John McGuigan, and State Sen. Sharif Street. 

In a conversation with The Dispatch, Street categorized himself as a “pragmatic progressive” who wants to “get things done.” Street, who represents the 3rd District in the Pennsylvania General Assembly said he was not worried that voters will end up nominating a candidate that is too far left to win statewide: “I just don’t think that’s going to happen.” He added, “I think Democrats in Pennsylvania have shown an interest in winning and we recognize the state we live in. Also, I think that the Democratic primary electorate is more sober-minded than the Twitterverse, if you will.” 

The biggest headline to date in the race as a whole has been the fundraising numbers from Fetterman’s campaign: an eyebrow-raising $3.9 million. His campaign said 99 percent of those donations were less than $200 and a total of 90,000 people donated to the campaign. What we don’t know, however, is just how many of those 90,000 donations came from individuals in Pennsylvania. And one more caveat to that haul: Fetterman has spent half of it already. 

Kenyatta’s campaign said he raised nearly $400,000 ($374,011 to be exact) from 12,000 donors, which comes to an average of about $31 per donation. Other possible contenders for the Democratic nomination that have not declared but are already in elected office with publicly available fundraising numbers are Rep. Chrissy Houlahan and Rep. Conor Lamb. Houlahan has $3.5 million on hand, while Lamb has $1.1 million. 

Kenyatta told The Dispatch that he isn’t bothered by the big difference in fundraising numbers between his campaign and Fetterman’s. “Do I walk into this race with a rolodex of wealthy friends? Can my parents—even if they were alive—double max out to me when I announce I’m running for Senate? No. … I never thought I was going to get in this race and out-raise somebody who’s run for statewide office three times. But I don’t need to outraise him to win the election. I mean, you aren’t writing about President Bloomberg, you’re writing about President Biden.” 

If it does come down to issues instead of fundraising, Democratic strategist T.J. Rooney told The Dispatch Democrats may well nominate someone that, on paper, could be deemed too progressive to win statewide. However, he also believes that Trump’s strong grip the GOP could make that factor moot. “It’s plausible that somebody who is considered too far left for a Democrat to be elected statewide could be elected statewide because too far left is always going to be a more pleasant and plausible alternative than Donald Trump-right.”