Shaped by a Void
It was October 2020 when U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, announced that he would retire from Congress at the end of 2022 and, perhaps more notably, that he wouldn’t be running that year for governor either.
“The reasons I have reached this decision are not political, they’re personal,” said Toomey, who went on to note that he’d then been in office for 18 out of the last 24 years.
Toomey, a strong Republican vote who had won two Senate terms in the Keystone State and previously completed three terms in the House, said he was looking to spend more time with his family and perhaps return to the private sector.
The senator's absence has been deeply felt this year as candidates swarm one open-seat race for the gubernatorial primary and another to find Toomey's successor. Because Pennsylvania is a closed-primary state, voters in primary elections can choose only among candidates running in their own political parties.
“We haven't had a race like this in Pennsylvania since probably going back to ‘78 when you had an open race for governor—and now it's combined with an open Senate race,” said West Chester professor of political science, John Kennedy, who has written extensively on Pennsylvania elections.
Looking ahead to the May 17 primary, few are offering a prediction of which candidates will prevail.
“It's coming up so soon, but it feels so undecided at this point,” said Kristen Coopie, who teaches undergraduate classes on politics at Duquesne University where she’s the director of pre-law. “A lot of a lot of elections you can look a couple of weeks before the primary and say, this might be a tight primary race, but this person seems to be where we're leaning.”
But not in these two, she says.
“Right now, it just doesn't really feel that way at all,” she said.
The race to find Toomey’s successor is shaping up to be one of the most anticipated in the country. The Pennsylvania Senate seat is one of a few across nation that will help to define which party has majority control of the Senate in 2023.
And at this point, it’s anyone’s guess which party will win the Senate seat as well as the governorship. The uncertainty, Coopie said, is a result of “not having that senior statesman — that really experienced political candidate” in either race.
The Cook Political Report has the Senate and gubernatorial elections marked as a toss-up, as does the Center for Politics, while Inside Elections has predicted the Senate race will likely tilt Republican.
Without an incumbent in the race, dozens of candidates are vying for Pennsylvania’s coveted U.S. Senate seat this year, in a governing body where Democrats barely have a majority now.
“I think what makes Pennsylvania this election cycle so fascinating,” said Benjamin Toll, assistant professor of political science at Wilkes University.
Coopie made a similar point.
“You have all these essentially fresh faces competing,” she explained. “That it kind of invigorates the process because it's a lot of different people for the voters to get to know, which can be good sometimes. But on the other hand, then it becomes information overload, and voters are not always eager to put a lot of effort into participating in the process.”
The Republicans After Toomey’s Seat
While Toomey’s seat has been a Republican stronghold for the past few decades, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t go blue. In fact, during his last reelection in 2016, Toomey just narrowly beat out Democratic challenger Katie McGinty by 100,000 votes.