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In race for Pennsylvania governor and Senate seat, early leads are scarce

Can voters have too many options? Courthouse News takes a closer look at the Keystone State weeks out from a race where the field is crowded and there are no incumbents.

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.

Fresh Faces

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.”

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., gives an address on Sept. 18, 2019, in Washington. Toomey will not seek reelection in 2022. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

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.

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Notably, Pennsylvania’s other senator, Bob Casey, who has held the office for 15 years now, is a Democrat. “We like to have dual representation,” Coopie said of the Keystone State's purple reputation, with a very conservative voter base in the middle part of the state and very liberal voter bases at either end around Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

The open seat Senate race has also drawn national attention for the celebrity doctor it has attracted as a candidate. Dr. Mehmet Oz holds a lot of name recognition coming into the primary, but, as Coopie pointed out, “that's not necessarily going to be a good thing."

"Because people will have very strong feelings about him," she continued, "and it also leaves a lot of his challengers to use his fame and a lot of his past statements against him." 

Toll, too, explained how Oz's background is causing him to take heat from the other candidates.

“If you're punching up in terms of name recognition and that's the way to make sure that you're getting talked about news stories, after debates or moderated events,” Toll said, noting that name recognition in primaries is an incredibly large factor. 

“Being someone that people know is going to help him more than just about anything else,” Toll said of Oz. “On top of that he has a lot of money that he has invested and has spent on his campaign.” 

But Toll adds, too, that Oz has been known to associate with Democratic celebrities, and that this could be a negative for some Republican voters.

“He has sort of been friendly with or connected to people that are not liked by Republican voters right now. He’s been friendly with Oprah Winfrey. He's worked with Michelle Obama. He's come out against fracking. And these are things that sort of would drive Republican voters away,” Toll said.

Still, Oz has said that he is a serious candidate and pressed that he was willing to give up his popular daytime talk show to run for Senate.

The cardiothoracic surgeon also is taking heat, however, for being a newcomer to Pennsylvania. Stepping away from his previous residence in Cliffside Park, New Jersey, Oz registered to vote in 2020 using his in-laws’ address in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania.

“People don't always like a carpetbagger,” Coopie said.

Currently, Oz is neck and neck in the primary with former financial manager David McCormick. Both received 14% of support from voters polled between March 26 and 28 by Emerson College Polling. Emerson’s poll found 51% of Republican voters are undecided, while no other candidate reached double digits. 

McCormick came into the race from a career as a Connecticut-based hedge fund leader. For voters, though, he has been stressing his Pennsylvania roots and background as an Army officer, a U.S. Treasury appointee under George W. Bush, and businessman.

“I’m running as someone who doesn’t need on-the-job training ... someone who has served in combat, someone who’s run two companies, helped create 600 jobs in Pittsburgh,” McCormick said at a debate held in Erie with other candidates. "Someone who’s signed the front of the check in a number of different places. Someone who has worked in the highest levels of government."

**All debates between Republican and Democratic Senate candidates and Republican governor candidates can be watched in their entirety on the Pennsylvania Cable Network.**

Oz has attacked McCormick as a puppet for Trump, while McCormick has attacked Oz as a RINO, or Republican in name only. Both have spent millions of dollars on broadcast ads.

In the still heavily undecided race, there are six other Republicans vying for the seat too. They include former GOP nominee for lieutenant governor Jeff Bartos; conservative political commentator Kathy Barnette; and former U.S. ambassador to Denmark under the Trump administration Carla Sands.

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Although there are so many options for voters, Kennedy notes that these Republicans are all running on similar platforms.

“There's not a lot of policy differences between the candidates. There's not a lot of sharp ideological differences,” he noted. “Some candidates have tried to carve out a certain lane ... and some candidates have unique backgrounds. It really comes down to which style the voters are going to appreciate the most.”

Dr. Mehmet Oz is seen at the 14th annual L'Oreal Paris Women of Worth Gala in New York in 2019. (Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

The Democrats Who Want to Steal

On the Democratic side of the Senate race, meanwhile, Lieutenant Governor Fetterman is in the lead, running against three other hopefuls: U.S. Representative Conor Lamb, who paints himself as moderate; Democratic state lawmaker Malcolm Kenyatta from North Philadelphia, the state’s first openly gay representative; and the long-shot candidate, mom and activist Alex Khalil.

Emerson Polling reports that while a large portion (37%) of Democratic primary voters are undecided on a Senate candidate, Fetterman holds 33% of support. That's well above U.S. Representative Conor Lamb, the only other name to reach double digits and barely so, with 10%.

Kennedy said that, despite this percentage difference, there are still lots of undecided voters, and Connor Lamb has lots of support in the Southeast.

“There's a long way to go in that race,” Kennedy said.

With the Democratic ticket, Toll noted that all of these hopefuls are running on outsider campaigns. 

“You know, the ‘I'm not a typical Democrat,’” he said, of Fetterman, Lamb and Kenyatta.

“A lot of this is a framing conversation about what they want the party to look like, and certainly that's what Kenyatta argues, and that's what Connor Lamb and John Fetterman are arguing. That they have a vision for what the party should look like and what politics should look like.”

Coopie echoed this with regard to Fetterman. 

“He's kind of the anti-politician politician,” Coopie explained. “He prides himself on this. He doesn't look, talk or dress like your typical politician. But he is very much a progressive candidate in terms of a lot of the policies.”

Fetterman supports the complete decriminalization of marijuana, supports President Biden's infrastructure plan, equal rights for the LGBTQ community, paying a living wage, supports a woman’s right to choose. Still, his history serving as second-in-command could also make it hard from him to break any association with the state's shutdowns during Democratic Governor Tom Wolf's early, cautious handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Lamb has painted some of Fetterman’s policies as too progressive for middle-of-the road voters. If Democrats hope to take a seat from the Republicans, in Lamb's view, they need someone with more moderate policies. 

Lamb’s camp has been trying to make the case that he is “the candidate who has more crossover appeal,” Coopie explained. “Who might be able to get some of those moderate or undecided or leaning voters and have a better chance against a Republican.”

Malcolm Kenyatta, meanwhile, while an underdog, has pressed that he is a new kind of candidate and will bring out a new kind of voter base to the polls.

“That's definitely a concern for a lot of voters is having that kind of representation where you have someone who looks like you or thinks like you or shares your values or your struggles or, or understand kind of where you're coming from,” Coopie said.

At a televised debate last week in front of a crowd at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Fetterman, who was a no-show, received a lot of heat from Lamb and Kenyatta, who did show up.

Lamb accused Fetterman of skipping the debate because he didn’t want to answer questions about a 2013 incident where, while he was the mayor of the small town of Braddock, he confronted an unarmed Black jogger outside of his home after hearing gunfire, gun in hand. The jogger has said Fetterman pointed the gun at him, but Fetterman denies this.

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“It was wrong when he did that,” Lamb said at the debate, pushing that the event from Fetterman's past should be considered a disqualifying one on the campaign trail.

Fetterman shook off the jab in an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, saying his opponent was “in the middle of a meltdown because he saw his poll numbers at 10%,” although he acknowledged that he would never want to repeat the situation with the jogger.

Toll noted that open-seat elections can have very competitive and very negative primary elections “because there's that battle going on between within a party about who is going to be the standard bearer of that party-specific level.” 

“And we are in a political environment in which negative partisanship is driving a lot of people that have very, very harmful views of the other political party, which increases desperation that people feel about winning the election,” Toll said.

Kennedy explicitly mentioned he thinks it could “get really nasty” between Fetterman and Lamb in the weeks leading up to the election primary. 

“When you have those sort of one-on-one battles that really can shake or shatter a party,” he said. “The danger of having so many candidates is that someone is ultimately nominated whose support might not be broad enough for the general election.”

Coopie added that the stakes are high for the Democratic Party.

“Losing that pretty safe Republican position to the Democratic Party would have huge consequences not just for the state,” Coopie said. “The control of the Senate is so tight that every seat matters.

“The Democrats really think that they have a chance here,” she continued. “Who ends up winning the primary is going to be very, very important going forward. They need the best possible candidate possible to run against the Republican, whoever it may end up being at this point.”

The Governor’s Race

The open-seat governor’s election is slightly less of a primary election show — at least on one side.

Current Democratic Governor Wolf, who will reach the end of his maximum two terms in office this year, has endorsed Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, as his successor. 

Shapiro, who has been Pennsylvania’s attorney general since 2017, is running uncontested on the Democratic ticket. He’s shored up widespread support from his party, due in part to his popularity with voters.

“Shapiro won more votes than any other candidate in the history of Pennsylvania and in 2016,” Toll explained, a year when Trump carried the state as president. “That makes it difficult for Republican candidates — to try to beat someone who was more popular than Joe Biden was, than Donald Trump was. More popular probably than any other candidate on the ballot.”

The attorney has gained national attention for his prosecution of child predators within the Catholic Church and for his defense against Trump’s election-related lawsuits following the 2020 election. He’s told voters he will stop state lawmakers from passing anti-abortion laws, push for a $15 minimum wage (roughly double what the state offers currently), and defend voting rights.

Still, Toll said, in November, “probably the largest con for Shapiro is just that he is seen as a polarizing figure. It's gonna be difficult for him to get a lot of voters that are Republicans to cross over and vote for him for governor.”

After making a name for himself in Pennsylvania, Toomey was a prospective favorite for the Republican ticket in the 2022 governor’s race. His absence has left a large opening for many less experienced candidates to crawl through.

Nine candidates are currently in the race for governor on the Republican side, including former U.S. Congressman Lou Barletta and Pennsylvania state Senator Doug Mastriano. The Republican Party has declined to endorse a single candidate in the primary, something that hasn’t been done since the 1970s.

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This could end up hurting the party, said Coopie.

“When you have a lot of people on the ballot, you're going to split the vote,” Coopie said. “Sometimes it's better to have one or two serious candidates that the voters could look at as the two best options instead of having four or five or six.

“Ultimately, what every election comes down to is electability,” Coopie continued, adding that it’s tough to know who voters want in office right now. “Given everything that's been going on over the last six years, or two years, or even two months, even. The world has drastically changed.”

So far, Emerson Poll surveyors found that in the governor’s race, Mastriano holds the highest lead among decided voters at 16%, followed by Barletta at 12% while 49% of Republican primary voters remain undecided. Both Republicans pushed to overthrow the 2020 election and bashed Governor Wolf’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mastriano, a Trump supporter who has drawn widely from the former president’s support base, was actually in the crowd outside the U.S. Capitol when the insurrection occurred on January 6. Shadowing Trump’s positions, he’s amplified conspiracies about the 2020 presidential election, opposed pandemic-related shutdowns, vaccines, masks and other precautions. 

Another affiliate of the 45th president is Barletta, who was one of the first politicians to endorse Trump as a presidential candidate in 2016 and later joined Trump’s campaign in 2020. Widely known across the state because of his history in politics, Barletta has said that as governor he will push to stimulate the economy, end mail-in voting and outlaw sanctuary cities.

Within the Republican Party, Toll observed, Congressman Barletta has lots of institutional knowledge of Republican politics. 

“Lou Barletta took rather tough positions on immigration before Donald Trump came into the picture taking positions on immigration. But I think what Mastriano has really sort of the more recent Trumpy perspective used over the 2020 election and all that other stuff — so in terms of voters within the Republican Party, I think it's however they can frame it to try to say that they are going to fight against the system, however they define it, that will make them more competitive,” Toll said.

Other Republican candidates include State Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, another Trump supporter who has enlisted the help of and former Trump team member Kellyanne Conway as his campaign adviser; former Philadelphia U.S. Attorney under the Trump administration Bill McSwain, who spearheaded a suit against the city’s opioid overdose prevention site and pursued actions against Black Lives Matter activists in 2020 protest altercations with police; Harrisburg-based Republican strategist Charlie Gerrow; and the only woman in the race, Melissa Hart, who served as a U.S. House representative from 2001 to 2007 and before that as a state senator.

“It's possible no one's really going to break through and that the winner could end up realistically with 25% of the vote,” said Kennedy. “That can be that can be problematic.”

While there are pros and cons of runoff elections, there they sometimes help a party to avoid a situation where a candidate who might not have broad appeal in the general can win when the party's nomination was less than 30% of the vote.

Because the Pennsylvania governor is responsible for tapping a secretary of state to oversee elections, the results could reverberate into the 2024 presidential race, which former President Trump is teasing to run in.

With the Republican primary so crowded, going into November, Kennedy said, Shapiro will have real advantages.

“He doesn't have to spend money for the primary. He's not he's not taking political shots from Democrats,” Kennedy noted. “The party's united behind Shapiro and really have been for years.”

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This screenshot from livestream shows Pennsylvania Attorney General Joshua Shapiro testifying at a hearing Tuesday, May 11, of the Senate Judiciary Committee. (Image via Courthouse News)

Unsure Voters

After all that’s happened the last few years, political experts aren’t sure what to expect in terms of the outcome of the Pennsylvania primaries.

“There's a large percentage of people that haven't decided where they're gonna go for the moment,” Toll noted.

From there, the general election “is going to be very dependent on who ends up being the candidate for each of the parties,” Coopie said.

Historically, Pennsylvania has not been the kind of place where those in the far left or the far right have had a lot of success, which is not always the case, even in a purple state, according to Kennedy. 

“We're in a very polarized environment,” Kenney noted. “And former President Trump casts a big shadow over this. Candidates who may have a background as being more moderate have, perhaps themselves moved more to the right.”

If the general election results follow the way of history in the Senate race in particular, a Republican will likely be walking away with a win.

“In political science we say there’s a law that the president's party is going to lose congressional seats in the midterm elections. It very rarely happens at the party does well in midterm elections,” Toll said. “From that perspective, we would expect that a Republican would be able to pick up the seat and I think that Republicans nationally would be hoping very much to pick up the seat.”

Kennedy echoed this, noting that the only two exceptions since 1932 have been in 1998 when Democrats picked up seats after former President Bill Clinton’s impeachment, and then in 2002 under President George W. Bush's midterm.

“The party in power at the presidential level has traditionally lost seats in the midterm. Sometimes they lose a lot of seats,” Kennedy said.

Republicans lost seats in the 2006 midterm, and in 2010 and 2014 Democrats lost seats. In Trump's midterm in 2018 Republicans lost seats. 

“It's natural. Some of it is demoralization. Maybe not getting your goals achieved,” Kennedy explained.

On the other side of the ballot, you have voters who feel like they have the power to elicit change.

“Republican, enthusiasm is going to be high,” Kennedy said. “The question is, are the Democrats in the next six months going to be able to match it? Are they going to be able to regenerate enthusiasm?”

The other question, Toll noted, is for how long President Trump is going to be the driving the campaigns of the Republican Party. 

“We certainly knew that was the case in 2020, that whomever he supported and primary elections were very likely to win the Republican Party. Is that true today?” Toll asked. “We don't know yet.” 

Toll noted that there's a lot of baggage that comes with being linked to President Trump and his policies, but that this strategy has also ”worked really well and is still very popular.”

What’s more, the results of Pennsylvania’s primaries could cast light on what’s to come for other races across the nation.

“The primary is getting a lot of attention because it's going to be very important," Coopie said. "Not only for potential control of the Senate going forward, but also as an indication of what may or may be to come in 2024 with the next presidential cycle."

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