Democrats Betting Millions on Flipping ‘Must-Win’ Seat in Senate

  • Tattooed Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Fetterman raises $3.9 million
  • Reps. Lamb and Houlahan also mull jumping into contest

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The Democratic primary for a Pennsylvania Senate seat that’s key to future control of the chamber is shaping up to be expensive and crowded, with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman setting the pace with a substantial early cash haul.

Fetterman’s receipt of $3.9 million in first quarter contributions already is starting to affect the 2022 race to replace retiring Republican Patrick Toomey, according to outside analysts and campaign aides. “It certainly helps” get him attention and support from national Democrats seeking to expand their majority, said J. Miles Coleman, an analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics who analyzes Senate races for political scientist Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball race ratings.

Pennsylvania is “probably the closest thing to a must-win seat” for Democrats if they want to expand their hold on the Senate, Coleman said. Joe Biden narrowly won the state in the 2020 presidential race, and Democrats say Pennsylvania has been trending their way since 2018, when they took governor and Senate races by wide margins.

Fetterman’s tattooed, shorts-wearing style has drawn national attention, and he has an email list with 1 million potential contributors. He received 99% of his money from donors giving less than $200 each. A liberal former small town mayor of Braddock, outside Pittsburgh, Fetterman endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president in 2016 and says he wants to counter the appeal of Donald Trump in communities like his in western Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania’s Fetterman, Talking Tattoos, Seeks Senate Seat

His fundraising is comparable to some 2020 Senate candidates who shattered records, such as Mark Kelly (D- Ariz.) who had raised $4.1 million at a similar point in his successful campaign.

“We are going all-in and are committed to building a people-powered campaign,” Fetterman said in his April 1 announcement of his first quarter fundraising.

(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman says he has raised $3.9 million in the Democratic primary for an open Senate seat.

Republican retirements in competitive states including Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Ohio have provided Democrats with a number of opportunities to defend and build on their majority. They currently hold the majority in an evenly split Senate because of the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

“Pennsylvania is a top target and one of the most vulnerable states Republicans will be forced to defend this cycle,” Stewart Boss, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said in an email. The DSCC hasn’t signaled whether or when it will back someone in the primary, and Democrats say they expect the field of primary candidates may grow.

Fetterman and two state lawmakers, Malcolm Kenyatta and Sharif Street, have registered Senate campaign committees with the Federal Election Commission. Kenyatta, a state representative, and Street, a state senator, both represent North Philadelphia districts. Valerie Arkoosh, a Montgomery County commissioner in the Philadelphia suburbs, announced Monday she’s jumping into the increasingly crowded pool of Democratic primary candidates.

Others considering entering the Democratic primary likely will also have significant financial backing. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan(D-Pa.) raised more than $580,000 in the first quarter, bringing her total campaign cash on hand at the end of March to $3.5 million, a Houlahan spokesman said in an email. Houlahan hasn’t declared for the Senate, but money she’s raised for her House campaign committee can be used for a possible Senate race. She won a congressional district in 2018 in the far western suburbs of Philadelphia, which had been held by Republicans and flipped after court-ordered redistricting.

Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg
Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.) is considering entering the Democratic primary for the open Pennsylvania Senate seat.

Rep. Conor Lamb(D- Pa.) is the only major potential rival so far to Fetterman who’s from the western part of the state. Lamb, who’s won a series of competitive races in a swing congressional districts outside of Pittsburgh where former President Donald Trump targeted him, has said he’s seriously considering a Senate run. The state is likely to lose a congressional seat, because of reapportionment and redistricting following the 2020 census, which could affect Lamb’s decision on the Senate race, according to Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

As a moderate, Lamb is similar to Pennsylvania’s current Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), Borick said, adding that the state historically has elected only white men to statewide office. Lamb is “a great match for the general election in Pennsylvania,” Borick said, but would have to survive a Democratic primary to get there.

Little GOP Action

A quirk of Pennsylvania’s statewide elections is that the home county of each primary candidate is listed on the ballot. This could be a factor in the Senate primary, analysts said. Fetterman is from Alleghany County, which includes Pittsburgh, and was the only candidate from the western part of the state in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor in 2018. He won the primary with just 38% of the vote, as several candidates from the Philadelphia area split the rest of the vote.

The Republican Senate primary has been slower to come into focus, Coleman said, possibly because of uncertainty about how big a role Trump will play in shaping the race.

The only major Republican candidate registered with the FEC is Jeff Bartos, a real estate investor from suburban Philadelphia, who’s also been a Republican fundraiser. Bartos lost the lieutenant governor’s race to Fetterman in 2018, when they competed on party tickets headed by Governor Tom Wolf (D) and Republican challenger Scott Wagner.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Bennett Roth at broth@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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