When a team at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics sat down to work out their initial rankings of which party had an advantage in each state’s 2022 senate contests, they rated just one state as a toss-up.
Take a wild guess which one.
In the last four and a half years, both parties’ presidential candidates scored narrow wins in Pennsylvania, the 18-seat congressional delegation split right down the middle twice, progressive candidates won upset victories in the state’s two largest population centers, and Republican row office candidates won two statewide races on the same day President Joe Biden won the state’s 20 electoral votes.
Enter — or, rather, exit — U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey. The Lehigh County conservative’s decision not to seek a third term means neither party will have the advantage of incumbency, making Pennsylvania’s open seat perhaps the biggest prize in the parties’ battle to gain an advantage next year in a Senate currently controlled by Democrats by the slimmest possible margin.
“If it’s not Number 1, it’s 1A,” said Christopher Nicholas, the veteran political operative who managed four of the late Arlen Specter’s Senate campaigns.
The party that controls the Senate controls the fate of Biden’s ambitious — and expensive — domestic programs, the fate of any Supreme Court candidates Biden might appoint, and perhaps whether Congress will certify the 2024 presidential results if a Democrat wins but Trump or another Republican again attempts to overrule the will of voters.
Twenty-five candidates — 12 Democrats, 12 Republicans and one Libertarian — have declared their candidacy to the Federal Election Commission, and party operatives expect more to enter the race.
“I don’t think there's much clarity as to who the nominees are going to be,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the University of Virginia’s newsletter that ranked Pennsylvania’s Senate race as the lone toss-up.
Ticket-splitting is increasingly rare, which generally makes a state’s presidential vote more predictive of its Senate vote. Pennsylvania is one of only two states, along with Wisconsin, where Republicans will defend seats in states Biden won.
Though Joe Biden got seven million more votes nationally than Republican incumbent Donald Trump last year, the Senate’s geographic weighting left the chamber evenly split, 50 to 50, with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. The dynamic has frustrated liberals, as conservative Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have insisted on compromises with Republicans and the preservation of the filibuster, the procedural tool that allows a minority of senators to block the majority’s priorities.
“This is an opportunity to flip a seat,” said J.J. Abbott, executive director of the progressive organizing nonprofit Commonwealth Communications and the former press secretary for Gov. Tom Wolf. “The stakes are pretty high.”
Biden has proposed a $6 trillion federal budget that includes funding for universal pre-kindergarten, guaranteed paid leave, billions to fight climate change and a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan. Despite increasing taxes on corporations, capital gains and those in the highest tax bracket, it would increase deficit spending to levels not seen since World War II, according to government projections.
In addition to big-ticket domestic legislation, Biden’s presidency offers Democrats a chance to push back some of the massive gains Republicans have made in reshaping the federal judiciary. Three Supreme Court justices are older than 70, and one of them — Bill Clinton appointee Stephen Breyer — is over 80.
Trump appointed three justices during his term, filling the seat of a Democratic appointee (Ruth Bader Ginsburg), and two Republicans, including a vacancy (Anthony Scalia) that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell kept open for most of Democratic President Barack Obama’s final year in office.
Another concern among Democrats is the 2024 presidential election. Multiple polls found a majority of Republicans believe Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen, and many GOP politicians have tried to win their support by echoing the lie or trying to overturn the election results outright.
Republican Sean Parnell, who lost his 2020 challenge to U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Allegheny County, joined with Republican Congressman Mike Kelly of Butler County in a lawsuit that would have disenfranchised 2.6 million Pennsylvanians who voted by mail in 2020. Their bid sought to supplant the voters’ choice for president by allowing the GOP-controlled General Assembly to appoint the state’s 20 electors.
Efforts to overturn the election culminated in the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, during which rioters attempted to stop Congress’ certification of the results. After the insurrection was quelled and armed security escorted lawmakers back into their chambers, a majority of GOP legislators in the House and several in the Senate objected to the results in yet another attempt to keep Biden’s electors from being seated.
“That’s a real threat going into the 2024 election,” Abbott said. “I don’t think, after Jan. 6 and after everything we’ve seen happen after the 2020 election, we can even for a second pretend that it’s not a serious option for the Republican Party going into 2024.”
Wawa vs. Sheetz
Republicans enter the 2022 race with history on their side. With few exceptions, the party that wins the presidency loses congressional seats in the next midterm election.
“Biden only won (Pennsylvania) by 1.3 (percentage) points, so it’s a very competitive state,” Kondik said. “If you believe that the non-presidential party has an advantage in midterms — and I am a believer in that — it doesn’t take much to turn a 1.3-point Democratic win into a Republican victory in the next election with a different kind of electorate.”
That happened in 2018, when Democrats answered Trump’s victory in the state by claiming the top two races on the statewide ballot.
“When you see Pennsylvania go to Trump, and then (Sen. Bob) Casey and the governor get re-elected (two years later), there’s no clear current,” Nicholas said.
The back-and-forth swings have to do with Pennsylvania’s peculiar political geography, Nicholas said. “It's WAWA versus Sheetz.”
The western portion of the state, where Sheetz convenience stores reign, sits firmly inside the Appalachian borderlands of the Midwest, a formerly union-heavy bulwark for Democrats that steadily became more Republican as heavy industry declined and cultural divides with socially liberal areas widened.
In the east, where Wawas predominate, Philadelphia and its suburbs make up part of the Northeast’s Acela corridor. Once-reliable Republican suburbs in the area have moved in the opposite direction as western Pennsylvania, becoming more Democratic and diverse as Donald Trump’s GOP increasingly appealed to white cultural and racial grievance to attract voters.
The state has six media markets and the country’s fifth-most-populous city. But it also has more rural residents than every state except Texas and North Carolina, according to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania.
A test for both parties
Though the field is far from settled, Democrats have attracted better-known candidates, Kondik said.
“The Democratic field, at least at this point, includes bigger names than the Republican field. That’s not to say Sean Parnell or (Montgomery County real estate developer Jeff) Bartos are unknown, but whatever you think of John Fetterman, John Fetterman is a bigger name than those two,” Kondik said.
So far, anyway.
Prominent politicians who haven’t yet announced could upend the current dynamic if they enter the race. On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb in the west could add his name to the mix. The Republican primary might soon include Carla Sands, a wealthy Trump megadonor who served as the U.S. ambassador to Denmark during Trump’s term.
In a crowded field, a candidate could capture their party’s nomination with far less than a majority of votes.
Nicholas broke the GOP primary into three lanes: Trump acolytes, candidates who adopt Trump’s populist messaging but not his conspiracy theories, and those who put some distance between themselves and the former president.
“You’re kind of running an insiders game and an outsiders game,” Nicholas said.
The retiring Toomey benefited from that dynamic when he won his first term in 2010, during the Tea Party backlash to President Obama’s election two years before. He took on Nicholas’ former client, who remains the longest-serving Senator in Pennsylvania history.
The anti-establishment zeitgeist that year helped propel Toomey, and gave then-Vice President Biden the opportunity to convince Specter to leave the GOP and become a Democrat — only to lose the Democratic primary to former U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak. That set up the last race for an open Senate seat in Pennsylvania.
Now Toomey finds himself on the outs with many in his party. He declined to sign on to GOP efforts to overturn the election, and voted to impeach Trump for his role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection. Local Republican parties responded by censuring a man who, a few election cycles ago, was the conservative insurgent.
Still, had Toomey not decided to retire, Nicholas said he believes he would’ve won re-election. The 2022 primary hasn’t attracted marquee names and “it’s really hard to beat somebody with nobody,” Nicholas said.
“You look at the candidates now, and (wonder) how many of them would’ve run if Toomey was running for re-election?” Nicholas said.
As GOP factions fight over how closely to tie themselves to a former president with a devoted base inside the party but little support outside of it, Democrats are having their own reckoning between moderate and liberal wings.
“The Democratic Party is continuing to eat its own,” Nicholas said.
Pittsburgh saw some evidence of that in the May primary, when the city’s progressive, second-term mayor, Bill Peduto, lost to state Rep. Ed Gainey.
“Imagine if, a year ago, you’d said John Fetterman is going to be running for Senate and a number of candidates are going to be running to his left,” Nicholas said.
Gainey won by mobilizing city Democrats’ progressive base — some of the same voters who propelled Peduto into office in 2013 and 2017, but flipped amid a national reckoning on race and a broader leftward shift driven in part by progressive successes from district attorney’s races to congressional campaigns.
“Democrats need to nominate someone who can motivate the base,” Abbott said. “What we’ve seen in 2020 and 2021 is that the Democratic base, when engaged, turns out. That’s progressive voters, black and brown voters, and suburban-liberal voters.”
One early sign of who that might be could come from campaign finance reports. Candidates who excite base voters prove their viability by attracting lots of small-dollar donors. Think Barack Obama in 2008, and Trump and Bernie Sanders in 2016.
After the first fundraising quarter this year, Fetterman, who already had a statewide campaign operation, reported raking in $4 million — more than twice as much as every other candidate in both parties, combined. Bartos led the GOP field with $1.2 million, $400,000 of which was a loan from himself.
But national party leaders could tilt the field toward their preferred candidates, Nicholas said. Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh hasn’t reported raising any money, but that could change quickly if, say, someone like Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., signaled that he believes she has a better shot at winning.
“If you’re Chuck Schumer, do you think, ‘I’d much rather have a woman from the southeast than a man from the west?’” Nicholas said.
Senate campaigns tend to be more volatile than races for state offices because they’re subject to the shifting currents of increasingly heated national politics.
“You live in much choppier waters,” Nicholas said.
“It’ll be a very nationalized race,” Abbot said. “I think it’s also going to be the race in a state where Biden is most visible in many ways. His popularity and stature going into 2022 is really important.”
Biden’s job approval hasn’t yet dipped below 50 percent, a level of approval his predecessor never achieved, but he’s above water by just four percentage points in the latest Gallup polling.
Democrats are banking on the popularity of Biden’s policies — the recovery act, expanded child care tax credits, and proposed tax increase on corporations and the wealthy — to keep those numbers up and buoy their chances of keeping Congress.
But that requires proving to voters that the slim majorities they hold now (in addition to the bare majority in the Senate, Democrats hold just nine more seats than Republicans in the House) can translate into laws that improve people’s lives to counter Republican arguments for limiting the scope and size of government.
Democrats “need to continue ... showing how government can be used to improve people’s everyday lives,” Abbott said. “Trying to tackle some of these issues that families are facing across the ideological spectrum — whether it’s the lack of paid leave or the inability to meet their household budgets or child care — is really going to be essential to show voters they did the right thing by sending them to Washington.”
Kondik said he’ll also be keeping an eye on party registration changes to see if the state’s recent trends — a reddening west and leftward tilt in the east — continue.
In the context of the modern tweet-fueled political cycle, the election is eons away, but Nicholas identified one group poised to come out ahead:
“It’s going to be full-employment season for political consultants here.”