Early stages of Pennsylvania Senate race form around 2020 aftermath

Candidates are balancing party platforms amid the early battleground primary.

March 12, 2021, 5:03 AM

The date hasn't even been set for Pennsylvania's 2022 Senate primary, but hopefuls on both sides of the aisle are already gearing up for a race that will likely determine control of the upper chamber. About a dozen candidates have already filed paperwork to run, but only a handful are visibly beginning to chart their paths forward.

After the state delivered Joe Biden the presidency in November, Democrats became more optimistic about the 2022 prospects of taking over the seat left by retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. Their confidence was further evidenced in the first few months of Biden's presidency when a pair of nationally recognized Democrats -- Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta -- officially joined the race.

While the number of Democrats joining their ranks is sure to grow, Fetterman and Kenyatta are approaching the early stages of the primary by voicing support for several progressive-leaning platforms. Both candidates back raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, ending the Senate filibuster and addressing the complex web of economically rooted environmental concerns.

But in a battleground state where Biden's moderate platform won the presidency by just over 1%, and where Democrats fell short in virtually every other major 2020 political area, the current candidates are reluctant to outwardly link their campaigns to a fully progressive agenda.

"I'm running on my record of 26 years espousing the same policies, places [and] people that I've cared about," Fetterman told ABC News in a recent interview. "So if somebody thinks that's progressive, I mean, that's their right as a voter, but I really like to think of myself as a core, common sense, principled Democrat on issues that I believe encompass a lot of truth and facts."

"I don't genuinely -- in earnest -- understand what about my position is what I would call 'progressive' -- a $15 an hour minimum wage is $31,000 a year, and I don't know how anybody could come close to surviving on less than that," he added.

State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta posses on his childhood home block of Woodstock Street in North Philadelphia, Feb. 18, 2021.
Alejandro A. Alvarez/The Philadelphia Inquirer via Newscom

Kenyatta expressed similar sentiments about being labeled a progressive, and stressed his belief that politics across his state are more focused on who can best deliver results for struggling constituents throughout the pandemic.

"I did not get into politics because I cared about any of those labels," Kenyatta told ABC News. "Things are unbalanced in our economy. I was on the receiving end of what that imbalance looks like, and so, what I have always tried to do, and what I have more often called myself, is I'm a 'do something Democrat.'"

As both Democrats map out their brands statewide, their campaigns are already benefiting from previously established national exposure.

Fetterman worked up a blunt and social media-savvy online persona over the course of the 2020 election cycle as one of the most visible Pennsylvania Democrats to defend the state's voting rights against Republican challenges. The lieutenant governor also frequently took on the role of being the state's unofficial fact checker against former President Donald Trump's false election fraud allegations on Twitter, and in a subsequent nod to the Jan. 6 riots, Fetterman launched his campaign with the promise of being "100% sedition-free."

"It's going to be a competition of ideas that I think will result in Pennsylvania having two blue Senate seats, and that could very well have important ramifications on who controls the Senate," Fetterman told ABC News.

PHOTO: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman acted as a conversation moderator during a stop at York College on his statewide listening tour, York, Pa., March 19, 2019.
Lt. Gov. John Fetterman acted as a conversation moderator during a stop at York College on his statewide listening tour, York, Pa., March 19, 2019. Ydr Cc 3 19 19 Weedtourpa
Cameron Clark via USA Today Network, FILE

Kenyatta also rose to national prominence after videos of him delivering a passionate floor speech at the height of the pandemic went viral. In that speech, Kenyatta defended low-wage workers and highlighted difficulties they faced amid the ongoing health crisis, which he plans to continue to highlight.

"I got this race because I am sick of people acting like they care about our concerns when it's election time, and then we have to cross our fingers and cross our toes and hope that they fight for us when they get into office in Washington," he said.

"We're having a debate right now about whether or not we should raise the starvation level wage -- you have folks who we have praised now for months as heroes, as front-line workers, and yet we're still paying folks, you know, $7.25 here in Pennsylvania, and that still remains the federal minimum wage," he added.

During last summer's Democratic National Convention, Kenyatta was chosen as a keynote speaker within a larger group of young activists who Democrats identified as "diverse voices from the next generation of party leaders."

"I'll never forget [my grandmother] called me when the former president (Trump) had done something -- she called me almost on the verge of tears, and she said, 'I'm so sorry because I thought we had fixed some of this stuff already.' I refuse to have that conversation with my grandkids," he said.

Voters line up to cast ballots in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Nov. 11, 2020.
SOPA Images via Getty Images, FILE

While the broader intentions of both campaigns' align with their party's general political goals, Fetterman and Kenyatta's hesitancy to be placed under a progressive umbrella so early in the primary could be attributed to Pennsylvania's political swing state status.

"There's this great fiction that it was the progressive wing of the Democratic Party in Pennsylvania that won that won Pennsylvania for Biden, but that's just not the case," said Larry Ceisler, a Pennsylvania-based public affairs consultant. "Biden won because of his ability to do very well in the Philadelphia suburbs, but also to do incrementally better than Hillary Clinton did four years ago in the rest of the state."

Ceisler said that beyond the primary, a successful Democratic nominee will have to be able to replicate what the sitting president's campaign was able to pull off in November, and both candidates' apparent distancing from the progressive movement is an indicator of that approach.

"I think it's a recognition on both their parts that it's not going to sell in Pennsylvania in a general election," he told ABC News.

For Republicans, the political balancing act is likely to be just as challenging given the results of the 2020 general election, which were repeatedly opposed by members of the state's Republican Party. Following the Jan. 6 riots to overturn the election, eight Republican members of the state's congressional delegation cemented their alignment with the former president by voting against the certification of their state's electoral votes.

Toomey, who announced in October that he planned to retire after completing his current term, voted in favor of certifying the election results. After later voting to impeach Trump, Toomey was censured by his fellow Republicans in several Pennsylvania counties, and the state party expressed public disappointment in his vote.

"President Trump's desperate attempts to stay in office undermined the foundations of our republic, betrayed the confidence of millions who voted for him, and required a vote to convict," Toomey wrote in an op-ed for The Philadelphia Inquirer at the time.

Jeff Bartos speaks at the Wyndham Garden York hotel in York, Pa. , Nov. 6, 2018.
York Daily Record via USA Network, FILE

Toomey's 2016 victory serves as a testament to how marginal GOP wins have been in high-profile, statewide contests recently. The senator won his seat by just 1.5 points, which amounted to more than double Trump's 0.7% victory over Clinton that same year.

"For the Republicans to retain the seat, they're going to have to be able to break into the Philadelphia suburbs and to also get Trump-level numbers in the rural counties," Ceisler said.

The highest profile Republican candidate currently in the running, real estate developer Jeff Bartos, appears to be making strides to highlight GOP-based business accomplishments over intraparty divisions. In his first campaign video, a masked Bartos is seen greeting small business owners in a socially distanced manner while spotlighting his nonprofit work. The Republican candidate also makes his support for the former president clear.

"Donald Trump represented someone who listened to millions of Pennsylvanians who felt like no one was fighting for them, and we cannot go back," Bartos says in the video.

Bartos, who previously ran for lieutenant governor in 2018, is the co-founder of the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund, a nonprofit that provides forgivable loans to Pennsylvania-based small businesses. Bartos, who also helped launch the Barstool Fund with Dave Portnoy of the Barstool Sports blog, said the fund raised $3.3 million in the last 10 months.

"I think we have to ask ourselves ... who are we as a society, when this pandemic is over, if all that's left are giant companies?" Bartos said in a recent Fox News interview.

With the economic impact of the pandemic sure to play a central role on the campaign trail, both parties are likely to dissect job creation across a variety of industries. In the meantime, although Bartos lost his last statewide run, he's now getting the chance to run against the person who ultimately came out on top.

"Jeff is a good guy and a good friend. I welcome him to the race," Fetterman said in a tweet.

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