(CNN)In the beginning stages of Pennsylvania’s high stakes Democratic Senate primary, even the most progressive of candidates are downplaying the label.
Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s decision to retire next year means that for the first time in more than a decade, voters in what has become one of the country’s most hotly contested swing states will not see an incumbent senator on the ballot in 2022. The opening has gifted Democrats both a chance to expand their narrow advantage and — depending on who captures the nomination — the opportunity to introduce a pathbreaking new lawmaker to the Senate’s mostly wealthy and buttoned-down, White male ranks.
Following President Joe Biden’s victory last November — and his early success in coalescing Democratic lawmakers behind his agenda — overlapping questions of representation and ideology are simmering again in Pennsylvania as the Senate primary field grows.
Though progressive policies have largely been embraced by the Democratic mainstream, the contest is shaping up as a test of whether candidates who support ambitious projects like “Medicare for All” and aggressive action on climate change can succeed in such a politically divided state. Moderates are also under pressure — this time to find a candidate who can match the verve of the more progressive early entrees and motivate the party’s increasingly liberal base to turn out in what is expected to be a challenging midterm season for their party.
The field is already three-deep, with one more preparing to jump in, and could potentially double in size by the time next year’s primary swings into full gear.
Lt. Gov John Fetterman — the only current Senate candidate to have won statewide office — made the first big splash of the race when he announced a $3.9 million first quarter fundraising haul, a remarkable sum that his campaign said “(solidified) his position as the clear Democratic frontrunner in Pennsylvania.” But the release of the gaudy numbers followed news a day earlier that Braddock Mayor Chardae Jones, Fetterman’s successor, chose to endorse another leading progressive, the Philadelphia-based State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who is already running with the support of the national Working Families Party.
Kenyatta told CNN that he hoped Jones’ support — which he proactively sought — should be a sign to voters that “a year out, this campaign is certainly not locked up for anybody.”
State Sen. Sharif Street on Friday announced the creation of an exploratory committee at a news conference in Philadelphia, where he was joined by Bob Brady, chair of the city’s Democratic Party. Though he has not yet committed to a run, Street’s decision to test the waters underscores how competitive the race will be to consolidate the vote in the state’s Democratic hub.
In separate interviews this week, Fetterman and Kenyatta declined to frame the coming campaign as a referendum on any wing of the party. Both praised the new President and played up their progressive bona fides, but backed off the label tag itself — a potential sign that the first class of Biden era Democratic candidates are keen to portray their views as mainstream and, in the case of Kenyatta, emphasize a potentially barrier-breaking background to excite primary voters.
No appetite for a food fight
Kenyatta, 30, was an early endorser of then-candidate Biden ahead of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary — a decision he believes was validated not only by Biden’s electoral success but the President’s ability, so far, to unify competing factions of the party in support of his legislative agenda.
Though his own politics are more closely aligned with Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Kenyatta downplayed the implications of the party’s ideological divisions. His campaign, he said, was fueled more by a frustration with the makeup of the Senate — where the challenges faced by a Black gay man like him and a working poor family like his, are for most lawmakers almost entirely academic.
“You can’t learn everything based on a white paper or based on a briefing you got from a staffer,” Kenyatta said. “I mean, with some of this sh*t, you just kind of had to be there.”
For the young state lawmaker, whose parents had both died by the time he turned 27, that meant moving around a lot as a kid and watching his mother, a diabetic, ration her insulin so she could afford to buy food for him and his siblings.
“My mom, before she died, I think the highest wage she ever got was $12.50 (an hour). That’s not represented in the Senate,” he said. “And yet, working people are told, ‘Don’t worry, don’t worry, working person, we’ll take care of you. We’ll be fighting for you.’ And it’s like, will you? Will you, really?”
Kenyatta is also pitching himself as the candidate best-suited to rev up Democratic voters, especially those who have historically sat out non-presidential campaigns, ahead of next fall’s general election.
“We need to be doubling down, tripling down, trying to make sure those voters turn out. If you think about midterm elections, you always see a downturn in African-American turnout. You see a downturn in turnout among young people,” Kenyatta said. “When Black folks are on the ballot, more Black people vote. When young people are on the ballot, more young people vote.”
But as the field grows in Pennsylvania, new candidates — with compelling personal stories and credible claims to a winning coalition of support — seem to emerge by the day. On Monday, Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, chairwoman of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, made her official entry into the race to the delight of some Democrats hoping to elect the state’s first woman senator. Street, like Kenyatta, represents a district in Philadelphia and is expected to formally launch a campaign soon.
And that’s before a trio of House Democrats — Reps. Conor Lamb, Chrissy Houlahan and Madeleine Dean — decide whether to join the contest.
The House members will first have calculations to make about what their districts will look like after being redrawn by a GOP state legislature and, particularly in Lamb’s case, whether a Senate run might mean effectively handing over his seat in western Pennsylvania to a Republican. Houlahan, an Air Force veteran, has stockpiled about $3.5 million in campaign cash, according to spokesman Connor Lounsbury, and Dean’s star has risen in progressive circles since her turn as an impeachment manager in the second impeachment trial of Trump.
The frontrunner’s long road
The Fetterman campaign’s claim to frontrunner status was echoed by a number of Democratic operatives and Keystone State political veterans. Former Gov. Ed Rendell told CNN that he considers Fetterman the favorite to win the Democratic nomination and marveled at the lieutenant governor’s unique “capacity” to raise small dollar donations.
But Rendell, for so long the moderate totem of Pennsylvania politics, also expressed concern that Fetterman might be both too progressive to succeed in a general election and, because he is a relative stranger to the Democratic strongholds in Philadelphia and its suburbs, could struggle to compete there with more familiar faces.
The lieutenant governor’s sometimes gruff political style and appearance — he’s 6-foot-9 and unafraid of the tattoo artist’s needle — were, Rendell said, less of a worry.
“He’s a little unusual — different. These days in politics, maybe that’s more of an asset than it would’ve been five years ago,” Rendell said. “He’s going to be an attractive candidate in the primary.”
In an interview, Fetterman spoke about the politics of the last decade, but only to remind voters that, while the political dynamics around him have changed, his message has not. Where his longtime support for gay marriage and marijuana legalization once made him an liberal outlier, those issues have since become mainstream Democratic causes.
“I went from being considered a very strong, progressive voice in 2015 and now I don’t even consider it progressive. I think the argument is over within the Democratic Party, and I think anyone who’s fair-minded would agree with that,” Fetterman said. On issues like the $15 minimum wage, “legalizing marijuana or common sense gun reform, the support for unions, support for infrastructure — I mean, these are all (considered) common sense things now. I don’t really consider that ‘progressive’ in that sense.”
What did change for Fetterman, and what he said ultimately sealed his decision to run for Senate, was the aftermath of the 2020 election, as mainstream Republicans routinely parroted Trump’s lies about election fraud in a disinformation campaign that culminated with the deadly Capitol insurrection.
“I was appalled. And then, of course, like for many people, January 6 was just astonishing to me,” Fetterman said, referring to the Trump supporter-led riot. “I joked early on (in the campaign), I said, ‘If I’m your next senator, I promise to be 100% sedition-free.’ So everything just kind of crystallized.”
Though Fetterman has not backed off his political message, his desire to litigate intra-party rifts is all but gone. He demurred when asked to describe the makeup of his coalition, instead pointing to the electoral scoreboard — one that, after finishing a distant third in the party’s 2016 Senate primary, showed him overwhelming the Democratic primary field in his 2018 run for lieutenant governor. Fetterman and incumbent Gov. Tom Wolf blew out their Republican rivals in the fall, outpacing Wolf and former Lt. Gov. Mike Stack’s margin four years earlier.
“My coalition is the one that I’ve already assembled. My coalition is being one half of a team that smashed (GOP gubernatorial nominee) Scott Wagner back to the Stone Age back in 2018, by 850,000 votes. And won 40% in a crowded Democratic primary,” Fetterman said. “My coalition are the people that agree with these core, basic, moral, fundamentally fair and equitable policies.”
This time out, though, with the stakes even higher and in the aftermath of last summer’s national reckoning on racial inequality, Fetterman has faced renewed questions over a January 2013 incident in which he left his home, shotgun in tow, to confront what turned out to be an unarmed Black jogger, after hearing the sound of gunshots in the area and calling 911.
Asked about controversy surrounding the episode, Fetterman said that “at no point during that episode was I ever aware of this individual’s race” and noted, as he has in other interviews and a Medium post, that the Sandy Hook massacre had taken place a little more than a month before. The jogger, he said, was going in the direction of a local elementary school.
“Profiling and the history in minority communities is a real thing,” Fetterman added, “so I understand why people might be concerned, but this had nothing to do with race.”
Kenyatta mostly passed on criticizing Fetterman over the confrontation. But he did question the his rival’s decision-making — and the potentially troubling example it might set for others.
“We cannot have people dishing out vigilante justice in communities and be able to say, well, you know, there’s gun violence in this community, thereby, if I heard something, then I’m justified in going out and taking whatever weapon I have to chase down whoever the person is,” Kenyatta told CNN. “I’ve said that repeatedly and so my hope is that John apologizes, that he understands why that situation is problematic.”
The national party machines get into gear
No matter who ultimately emerges victorious from the Democratic primary, the Republican Party’s Senate campaign arm is already working to cast the nominee as an out-of-step liberal running in a more conservative state than outsiders realize.
“Campaigns are marathons, but Democrat candidates in Pennsylvania are already sprinting as far left as possible, embracing Bernie Sanders’ agenda to ban fracking and destroy Pennsylvania energy jobs,” said National Republican Senatorial Campaign committee spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow.
Neither Fetterman or Kenyatta support a fracking ban, though both have argued that the state needs to pivot — alongside energy companies — to clean technologies. Kenyatta said he supported a “moratorium on new wells” and suggested there could be jobs in capping old, disused ones.
Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Stewart Boss made no secret of the fact that Pennsylvania “is a top target” for the party in 2022, and he expressed confidence that the party’s candidates would enter the cycle in good stead, owing to the popularity of Biden’s signature $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill.
“With Washington Republicans already obstructing desperately needed coronavirus relief and now pledging to oppose a historic investment in rebuilding our infrastructure and creating good-paying jobs,” Boss said, “the Republican nominee will have to defend an agenda that’s deeply out of touch with Pennsylvania voters.”
The Republican primary, which is equally unsettled, could also pose challenging questions to a GOP still reckoning with its future in the shadow of a former President, who reportedly plans to be an active campaigner — and would-be kingmaker — in next year’s contests. He has already begun to dole out endorsements to loyalists and prod prospective challengers to take on those who have crossed him.
Jeff Bartos, a real estate developer who lost the lieutenant governor’s race against Fetterman in 2018, recently announced he raised nearly $1.2 million in the first three weeks of his campaign. Rep. Mike Kelly and former Rep. Ryan Costello, one of the vanishingly few Republicans who have been publicly critical of Trump in the past, along with Trump’s ambassador to Denmark, Carla Sands, and his Navy secretary, Kenneth Braithwaite, are other potential GOP candidates.
Trump has not yet weighed in on the primary.