(Corrects Kristin Davison’s relationship to the Carla Sands campaign in 5th paragraph. A previous version corrected timing of Pat Toomey’s retirement announcement in 20th paragraph.)
Republicans say their road map to a Senate victory in Pennsylvania next year will combine the divergent geographic routes taken in 2016 by Donald Trump and Pat Toomey.
GOP campaigns are using them as a guide to how to win statewide again after President Joe Biden carried the state by just more than a percentage point. The question is whether someone capable of emerging with the nomination can then muster a coalition that combines Trump’s turnout in the state’s exurbs and rural areas while bringing back suburban voters.
A messy child custody hearing featuring Trump’s endorsed candidate, Sean Parnell, and the emergence of possible additions to the crowded primary field have over the past week presented new variables to Republicans’ path. And the state’s central role in deciding the majority adds weight to the unwieldy contest to claim the GOP mantle from Toomey, who opted against running for a third term.
The recent election in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin captured the governorship in part by tapping into fears about education to appeal to both cultural conservatives and suburban parents, may also provide a template.
“When you look at Pat Toomey and Donald Trump’s wins in Pennsylvania in 2016, there were really two different maps in two different campaigns,” says Kristin Davison, a consultant at Axiom Strategies working with Youngkin, who worked this summer with Carla Sands, Trump’s former ambassador to Denmark and one of several Senate contenders. “Going into 2022, the Republican Party needs a candidate that can bridge both of those races.”
Pennsylvania had voted Democratic in every presidential election since 1992 until Trump carried it, and it’s been narrowly decided in the past two. It’s had two senators from different parties for the past decade.
The campaign strategies of Toomey and Trump show how different combinations of the Pennsylvania electorate can produce Republican wins. In 2016, Trump eked out a victory in the state with strong support from non-college-educated voters in working class communities while Toomey was boosted by ticket-splitters in the affluent Philadelphia suburbs.
Some candidates reported in October collecting significant amounts of campaign cash and are angling for the GOP nomination with an eye on positioning themselves for the general election.
One is Parnell, an Afghanistan war veteran and regular guest on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News program who lost a 2020 challenge to Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who’s also running for the Senate seat. Parnell, whom Trump endorsed, took the stand Monday to testify in a child custody case and further deny his estranged wife’s abuse allegations.
Parnell’s endorsement was a snub to Sands, who moved back this year to Harrisburg after living in Los Angeles. She launched her campaign in her nearby hometown of Mechanicsburg, hoping to parlay her time in the Trump administration into a first time, mostly self-funded run at public office.
Also seeking the nomination is Jeff Bartos, a real estate developer from the Philadelphia suburbs who ran on the GOP ticket in 2020 against Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, another Democratic Senate contender. Another GOP challenger is Kathy Barnette, a conservative commentator and veteran who staged an unlikely challenge to Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) outside Philadelphia, before organizing Trump supporters to attend the “Stop the Steal” rally on Jan. 6
Meanwhile, Washington Free Beacon reported Tuesday that Mehmet Oz, host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” is preparing to join the race. Politico reported last week that some Pennsylvania Republicans encouraged David McCormick, a West Point graduate and CEO of Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, to move back home and run.
The race has already turned contentious with Bartos seizing on reports about Parnell’s personal life. In October, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Parnell was seeking a gag-order against his wife as they undergo a divorce and child custody battle. His wife testified in a sworn testimony describing domestic abuse by her husband. Parnell’s campaign released a statement saying “what happened today in court was not justice, nor did it have any basis in fact or truth.”
Bartos called the accusations “disturbing, well-documented, and disqualifying” and makes Parnell “unelectable.”
With Parnell under attack, Sands has been trying to stress her ties with Trump, releasing an ad that starts with them shaking hands, declaring her campaign as “Pennsylvania First.”
Referendum on Biden
GOP strategists predict their party’s candidates will benefit in 2022 when the election is a referendum on the Biden presidency and Democratic control of Congress. The governor’s race may also energize Republican voters upset about state coronavirus restrictions.
The big challenge will be whether GOP candidates can pivot from Trump after a primary season that stretches to next May in order to draw support in the voter-rich Philadelphia suburbs, said Bartos campaign manager Conor McGuinness.
“Winning the primary and winning the general are two different feats” McGuinness said. Bartos, who is from Montgomery County outside of Philadelphia, is “the only person who can bring the suburbs back home and carry the state, bridging together what appears to be two separate wings of the party,” he said.
Davison said it’s critical that the nominee can ably address the cost of living and pin that on Biden and the eventual Democratic nominee. Imitating Trump’s style will not be enough, said Davison.
In the Senate, Toomey, who announced his retirement in October 2020, honed a reputation as a fiscal conservative who broke ranks with his party on gun control and kept his distance from Trump. He voted to convict the former president after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Toomey “walked this tightrope as a senator who was relatively more anti-Trump” but still benefited from Trump supporters, said Dan Hopkins, a political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
In 2016, he outperformed Trump in the four “collar counties” of Philadelphia by more than 71,000 votes. Appealing to Trump’s working class base without offending suburban voters won’t be easy for any of the current crop, Democrats contend.
“This field is bear hugging Donald Trump and has made it clear they have no interest in moderating their views to appeal to swing voters,” said Jack Doyle, communications director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party. “In fact, they’ve made it clear they wouldn’t accept Pat Toomey’s endorsement. Flyers and Penguins fans have more in common than this group of Trump Republicans and Pat Toomey.”
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