Packed Democratic primary looms for Pennsylvania Senate seat

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FILE - In this Feb. 7, 2019, file photo, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, right, speaks during a news conference in Pittsburgh. Democrats see one of their best chances to pick up a Senate seat in a Senate during next years midterms in Pennsylvania.(AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

WASHINGTON – Pennsylvania already had a full lineup of Democrats wanting to join the U.S. Senate: A heavily tattooed lieutenant governor who looks more like a nightclub bouncer than the holder of an advanced degree from Harvard. A young upstart in the Legislature trying to become the state's first Black and first openly gay senator. A suburban anesthesiologist endorsed by a powerful women’s group.

And, as of Friday, a former Marine who drew national attention by beating Donald Trump’s choice to get to Congress and whom President Joe Biden once said reminds him of his late son.

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Democrats see one of their best chances to gain ground in the Senate during next year's midterms as flipping the seat of retiring Republican Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey. But first the party will have to endure a potentially bruising primary with a bumper crop of compelling political figures who don't break neatly down along the moderates-versus-progressives divide that has defined other high-profile races this year.

“Pennsylvania is a critical pickup if Democrats are going to maintain control of the Senate,” said Kelly Dietrich, a former Democratic fundraiser and founder of the National Democratic Training Committee, which helps prepare candidates for races around the country. “Whoever wins the primary needs to be viable winning statewide, and I think there are several good, qualified candidates.”

Biden was born in Pennsylvania and won it by about 80,000 votes last year, reclaiming the key swing state for Democrats after a surprising 2016 loss was key in sending Trump to the White House. State politics has been even more contested — with both parties trading off advances in the statehouse and in the U.S. Senate. The Republican senatorial primary is almost as packed as the Democrats' and includes Sean Parnell, a former Army Ranger and friend of Donald Trump Jr.'s.

Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb, a former federal prosecutor, has now formally kicked off his senatorial run. His victory in a 2018 special election became a symbol of hope for Democrats who were still reeling from losing white working-class voters to Trump — and helped preview his party's takeback of the House.

Lamb campaigned then with Biden, who likened Lamb to his son Beau, who died of a brain tumor in 2015. The pair share many of the centrist values championed by the Democratic establishment — which has helped moderates win several much-watched races this year, including Tuesday's special congressional primary in Ohio.

Lamb has embraced some progressive positions, saying he’d back scrapping the 60-vote minimum threshold to advance most major Senate legislation and support organized labor rights. VoteVets, which promotes progressive veterans, is behind his bid, according to former Pennsylvania Rep. Patrick Murphy, who is a key fundraiser for the group.

But Lamb has challengers from the left. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a 6-foot-8 (2-meter-tall) former mayor and unsuccessful 2016 Senate candidate, has staked out a lane as a progressive populist and made himself a national media regular.

The race also features 31-year-old state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who has been endorsed by the Working Families Party and, like Fetterman, supports some top progressive positions, including a $15-per-hour federal minimum wage and canceling all federal student debt.

Also in the Democratic field for next May's primary is Dr. Val Arkoosh, chair of the board of commissioners in Montgomery County, one of the well-off Democratic suburbs where women have led the drive away from the Republican Party. Arkoosh has been endorsed by EMILY’s List, which promotes female candidates who support abortion rights.

The primary could come down to geography more than ideology. The east-west political divide in Pennsylvania runs as deep as the chasm between fans of the NFL's Steelers and Eagles. Meanwhile, the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are no longer the only Democratic powerhouses in the state as suburban voters have moved to the left and shown up in big numbers during recent cycles.

Lamb, 37, hails from western Pennsylvania, as does the 51-year-old Fetterman, the former, longtime mayor of impoverished Braddock, a tiny steel town just outside Pittsburgh where three-fourths of the residents are Black. Arkoosh and Kenyatta are from the Philadelphia area to the east.

Voters in the Philadelphia metropolitan area make up 50% of the overall Democratic primary electorate, and suburban Democrats now outnumber those living in the city limits. That high concentration of Democrats around Philadelphia would give local candidates a boost — unless Arkoosh and Kenyatta split that vote.

The could leave Lamb in a better position. His district, with a healthy swath of suburbs and a moderate profile, could give Lamb an edge in the more populous suburbs, said Erie County Democratic Party Chair Jim Wertz.

“It becomes a bit more complicated for John Fetterman, who by most accounts would be considered a front-runner,” Wertz said, noting Fetterman's campaign fundraising advantage. The lieutenant governor reported having a campaign bank account with $3 million as of June 30, more than any other candidate, including the $1.8 million in cash on hand Lamb had then.

“Lamb’s congressional district is a tough district and in many ways a bit more representative of the statewide electorate,” Wertz added.

Lamb’s district also includes the more Democratic northern Pittsburgh suburbs of Allegheny County while encompassing Beaver County, where Democratic registration tops Republicans’, though Trump carried the county by a commanding 18 percentage points.

The area’s rich natural gas reserves are a point of Democratic division. More liberal candidates lean away from petroleum-based energy sources, and those who are more moderate, including Lamb and Biden, support the industry.

Pennsylvania pollster Terry Madonna said Lamb's position on energy could draw support from pro-Trump Democrats.

“These conservative, blue-collar Democrats are not culturally liberal. Don’t touch their guns," Madonna said. "But they may support Lamb for his natural gas stance.”

That's not a terribly large pool, though. Eight percent of Pennsylvania voters who backed Biden in 2020 said they supported Trump in 2016, according to an AP VoteCast survey of statewide voters.

The more pressing question may be whether a candidate with a more moderate profile can appeal to younger Democrats, whose ranks have swelled in the suburbs in recent years, said Joe Foster, the Democratic Party chair for Montgomery County, Arkoosh's home turf.

Lamb's position on gun control — he supports expanded background checks for gun purchases but has said new restrictions are unnecessary — may not wow younger voters. He also personally opposes abortion but supports keeping the right to the procedure in place. And Lamb also opposed Democrat Nancy Pelosi's election as House speaker in 2019.

“He voted against Nancy Pelosi," Foster said, “and there are people here who remember that.”


Beaumont reported from Des Moines, Iowa.

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