WASHINGTON, Pa. – If Democrats are going to hold the Senate, they must win the very few closely contested states up for grabs – particularly Pennsylvania, a politically divided state that includes volatile sections like this old industrial corner of the southwest.
Democrats in western Pennsylvania fully believe they will decide the political fate of the Senate in a unique 2022 contest: the most populous state with a toss-up Senate race, and probably a close contest for an open seat in a state that President Joe Biden carried.
Ardella Bryant, a retired lab technician who showed up at a wine bar in downtown Washington to see Democratic candidate John Fetterman, said the world these days is filled with "chaos and confusion," and Donald Trump's Republicans are strong in her area.
As fellow Democrats sipped free wine and munched on snacks, she said her party will have to work hard to reclaim a pivotal Senate seat in a state that has bounced back and forth between the parties.
"It's going to be tough," Bryant said. "We have to get everybody to care, and get out and vote."
From coal-steel-and-natural-gas country to the cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with voter-heavy suburbs in between, Pennsylvanians will decide what looks like the most wide-open U.S. Senate race of campaign 2022 – a signal event for a chamber now split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats.
First, the Democrats must navigate what could be a divisive primary race that runs the gamut of Democratic ideology. It includes a progressive/populist 6-foot-8 lieutenant governor who sports a bald head, a goatee and tattoos – and once reportedly directed a shotgun at a Black jogger he took for a suspected shooter – to a moderate congressman who defeated the forces of Donald Trump in a high-profile special election.
The winner will likely face a well-funded Republican challenger, possibly celebrity physician "Dr. Oz " Mehmet, himself not without considerable controversy.
The Pennsylvania race could also turn on matters like Trump's continuing influence on the Republican Party, an especially big issue in Pennsylvania because of efforts to overturn his loss to Biden in this key swing state, one of the factors behind the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
"We can't turn the primary into a circular firing squad," Fetterman told fellow Democrats in Washington, Pa., a center of manufacturing and natural gas production. "That's what the Republicans are counting on."
It all adds up to a unique election: The only toss-up race for an open Senate seat in a state won by Biden, a free-for all set up by the retirement of Republican incumbent Pat Toomey that could decide the fate of the U.S. Senate overall.
"It's a great bellwether state," said Christopher Borick, a political scientist and director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Pennsylvania. "Obviously, with the Senate majority so close, having an open seat here really does have national implications."
The Democrats (and Trump)
Democrats must first field a candidate from a crowded field that, on the surface, features every division within the party: Populist and moderate, white and Black, rural and suburban and urban.
In addition to Fetterman, the primary field includes Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa.; Val Arkoosh, who chairs the Montgomery County Commission in the Philadelphia area; and Malcolm Kenyatta, a state legislator from Philadelphia.
Fetterman, the most publicized candidate in the race, is casting himself as the outspoken populist. He also has the added advantage of having won a statewide race with a large and diverse electorate.
A supporter of past Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, Fetterman said Democrats need to be more aggressive in pursuing economic justice for blue-collar people who have been left behind. The former mayor of Braddock, Pa., near Pittsburgh, is also an outspoken supporter of criminal justice reform and the legalization of marijuana.
Fetterman developed a national profile after election day 2020, making cable television appearances to blast Trump and other Republicans for their false claims of voter fraud in Pennsylvania and other states.
Then there's the gun incident.
In 2013, when he was mayor of Braddock, a gun-wielding Fetterman detained a Black jogger, saying he had heard gunfire near his house. In a video released after his Senate announcement, Fetterman said he saw a man in a mask running toward a school, "so I made that decision at that point to intervene" until first responders arrived.
Fetterman also noted he won re-election as mayor after this incident. In a statement, Fetterman said that "race played no role" in the incident: "In my community of Braddock — a town that is 80% Black – the people know me, they know my heart, and they know that’s not what this situation was about."
Speaking with voters at the wine bar in Washington, Pa., an area that launched the anti-tax "Whiskey Rebellion" against President George Washington's government, Fetterman said Democrats need to confront Trump and the Republicans over the "Big Lie" of a "stolen election." Republicans are using these false claims to promote laws restricting voting, he said.
"Voting suppression is crucial" as a Senate campaign issue, Fetterman said in a brief interview after his remarks, adding he is "running against an agenda to oppose Democratic votes."
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The moderate lane in the primary is being pursued by Lamb, who is also making Trump an issue.
Representing a district that includes high-tech suburbs and old rust belt towns, Lamb said he has already proven he can beat the Trump machine in a high-profile election.
Lamb first won election to Congress in a 2018 special election. Then-President Trump and allies campaigned hard for Lamb's Republican opponent, Rick Saccone, to no avail.
"I know what that's like," Lamb said in an interview, referring to the attacks from Trump and conservative associates. "I'm prepared; I'm tested. John Fetterman is not tested."
Noting that Trump is still protesting the election and seeking to install supporters in election supervision offices across the country, Lamb predicted that the GOP will work extra hard in a closely contested state like Pennsylvania. Trump supporters who echoed false claims are running for offices up and down the ballot in the Keystone State, from local election boards to the governor's office.
"Trump is obsessed with Pennsylvania," Lamb said. "Anything we can do to undermine his standing, his movement, is a good thing for the country."
More Democrats, more Democratic constituencies
Other Democratic candidates said they represent constituencies that hold the keys to victory in the fall: Suburbs and cities.
Arkoosh chairs the commission for Montgomery County, one of four "collar counties" around Philadelphia that often prove decisive in state elections. Voters in those counties gave Biden 171,000 more votes in 2020 than they did Hillary Clinton in 2016, according to the Almanac of American Politics, a margin that flipped the state to the Democrats four years after Trump's victory there.
In addition to hailing from a true battleground part of the state, Arkoosh said her experience in local government involves "actually getting things done," and makes her the best equipped Democrat for the fall election. She said Democrats need to nominate "the right candidate, and that is someone who can appeal to these suburbs.
Kenyatta, a prominent Black and LGBTQ legislator, said Democrats need to keep faith with their progressive base, many of whom are located in places like Pittsburgh and his home base of Philadelphia.
To win in the fall, Kenyatta said, Democrats have to put together "the broadest, most diverse coalition," and he is best positioned to do that. He said that voters are looking for somebody "who represents a new and different path."
But Kenyatta – who, for example, plans to bring up the gun incident against Fetterman – said that these different views have to be aired: "That's why we have primaries."
The Republicans (and Dr. Oz)
The celebrity factor looms large in Pennsylvania's Republican primary.
Dr. Mehmet Oz, who gave up his television show to seek the Senate, has quickly become the most publicized Republican candidate in the race, targeting Biden and the Democrats in a series of television interviews and social media posts.
Often employing seeming doctor-speak – "America's heartbeat is in a code red in need of a debrillator" – the cardiac surgeon has attacked Biden over COVID response, border security, inflation and the economy. Oz performed blood pressure checks at a recent farm show, saying on social media that "it’s important to hear the issues driving up your blood pressure."
The Republican field also features a very wealthy candidate.
David McCormick, who recently resigned as CEO of Bridgewater Associates, one of the world's largest hedge funds, formally announced his candidacy on Thursday, saying he wants to "fight the woke mob hijacking America's future." McCormick also served as former Under Secretary of the Treasury for International Affairs under President George W. Bush.
Critics in both parties have raised residency issues about both Oz and McCormick, who have previously spent most of their time in other states. Jeff Bartos, a Montgomery County real estate developer who is seeking the Republican nomination, said there are too many "political tourists" in the state.
Other Republican candidates include Carla Sands, who served as Trump's U.S. ambassador to Denmark, and conservative political commentator Kathy Barnette.
The Republican race has already been tumultuous.
Sean Parnell, a former congressional candidate who had Trump's endorsement, suspended his campaign amid allegations of domestic abuse (which he has denied). This week, Parnell endorsed McCormick for the GOP nomination.
Demographics narrow the race
One of the few predictable things: A close race in the fall.
Biden won Pennsylvania by little more than 1 percentage point in 2020; Trump won it four years before that by less than 1 percentage point. Toomey, the retiring Republican senator, won his race six years ago by two percentage points.
The reasons: demographics and political shifts.
Borick pointed out that Pennsylvania has one of the nation's largest rural populations and one of its largest metropolitan areas (Philadelphia): "In many ways it's simultaneously an East Coast state and a Midwest state, and no party dominates here."
In general, the Philly suburbs have moved from largely Republican to Democratic over the past decade; something like the reverse has happened in western Pennsylvania, where Trump's campaign spurred higher GOP votes.
Good turnout machines, which Democrats say they need, are essential.
The Stakes: Senate Control
Thirty-four of the 100 Senate seats are up for election this year. Most are in solid red or blue states, and the Republican or Democratic candidate will be heavily favored.
The Cook Political Report estimates toss-up Senate races in six states: Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Many political analysts are predicting a good year for the Republicans – the president's party tends to suffer in mid-term elections, and Biden and the Democrats are grappling with low approval ratings. But the Democrats are more confident about keeping the Senate, figuring that Trump-y Republicans will struggle in statewide races – particularly Pennsylvania, which Biden carried in 2020.
"The Pennsylvania race for U.S. Senate provides a unique pick-up opportunity for Democrats," said Lara Brown, director of the Graduate School of Political Management at the George Washington University.
Residents of western Pennsylvania who showed up to watch Fetterman said they are aware their state could decide the fate of the Senate, and their decision could affect everything from abortion to the fate of Biden's economic agenda.
That's why Democrats have to find the right candidate, said party members who attended the winery meet-and-greet with Fetterman.
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Some residents expressed concern about Trump's continuing involvement in politics, noting that he and allies are still calling to overturn Biden's 2020 victory in the state. They noted that Trump allies are seeking election administration jobs in state and local governments, perhaps putting themselves in position to overturn future elections.
"I'm frightened that we're going to lose our democracy," said Judith Totty, a retired teacher from nearby Peters Township who said the voting rights issue is of paramount concern to her.
Others just hope the Democrats can avoid what Canonsburg businessman Ryan Kennedy called "mudslinging" with each other.
"There's a chance it could happen," Kennedy said. "But I pray we're smarter than that."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Pennsylvania Senate race could decide control of Congress in 2022