Pennsylvania primary voters are preparing to head to the polls on May 17 to decide who will represent the Republican and Democratic parties in a pivotal November election that could determine which party holds the U.S. Senate for the next two years.
Democrats see the race as their best chance to flip a seat now held by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, and a victory there would give the party a cushion as it has to defend Democrat-held seats in swing states like Georgia, Nevada and Arizona.
With polling suggesting it’s very likely that Republicans take control of the House of Representatives next year, retaining control of the Senate could be pivotal if President Joe Biden hopes to continue to advance his agenda through appointments to federal courts and key regulatory agencies.
Who will be the Democratic nominee?
Polling shows Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman with a commanding lead that has grown as the election nears, according to Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.
“He’s in a very comfortable position to win the primary on the Democratic side,” Yost told MarketWatch. “He’s well liked among Democratic voters, he’s raised a lot of money from small donors and he’s outspent his opponents. You want to be in John Fetterman’s shoes.”
The first thing most voters will notice about Fetterman is his appearance. At 6 feet, 8 inches, Fetterman sports visible tattoos, a bald scalp and a chin beard that had the local press dub him “the gentle giant.” He says he owns just one suit, and often eschews it in favor of Dickies and Carhartt workwear, exuding an authenticity that has made him a political celebrity in his state and beyond.
“That’s always been a thing with Fetterman: wearing shorts, not wearing a suit and having physical characteristics that you don’t usually see in politics,” said Daniel Mallinson, professor of public policy at Penn State Harrisburg.
Fetterman has made use of his platform, promoting signature issues like legalizing recreational marijuana
and criminal justice reform that he believes are not just progressive, but also appeal to a large number of Donald Trump voters in Pennsylvania’s many deep red, rural counties.
Who will be the Republican nominee?
While Fetterman appears to have a firm grip on the Democratic nomination, “there’s no clarity at all about what’s going to happen in the Republican race,” Yost said.
David McCormick, the multimillionaire former CEO of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, and Mehmet Oz, the surgeon and celebrity TV doctor, remain neck-and-neck in the race according to the most recent polls.
Christopher Nicholas, a veteran Republican political consultant based in Harrisburg, said in a phone interview that former President Trump’s recent endorsement of Oz should prove a boon for his candidacy, though this has yet to show up in public polling on the race.
“It’s going to have some impact, but we can’t see it right away because you have another well-funded candidate” in McCormick, he said. The former hedge funder has been inundating Pennsylvania voters with advertisements that accentuate his roots in the western part of the state and attack Oz for past positions he’s taken on fracking and abortion, among other issues.
Oz is counting on Trump’s endorsement to put him over the edge, Nicholas said, especially in the face of increasing opposition from the state party and other high-profile Republicans who argue that Trump erred in his endorsement. The former president is scheduled to host a rally in Western Pennsylvania Friday evening to stump for Oz.
Can Democrats pick up this seat in November?
One of the best predictors of success in midterm elections is polling about whether respondents prefer Democrats or Republicans to control Congress, and since last fall, these data have been trending toward the GOP. Both FiveThirtyEight and RealClearPolitics averages of polling show Republicans with a three percentage-point advantage by this score, bad news for Democrats hoping to get elected to Congress in the fall.
In Pennsylvania, voters are particularly pessimistic about the state of the nation and economy, with a Thursday poll from Franklin and Marshall showing that only 25% of registered voters feel the state is “headed in the right direction” while 43% say they are worse off financially today than they were a year ago.
Yost argues that if there’s a Democrat who can defy the odds during this cycle, Fetterman might be it. The lieutenant governor has shown the ability to appeal to voters in the western and more rural parts of the state, he said, while his deep Pennsylvania roots will contrast favorably to either Oz or McCormick, who recently resided in other states.
And while midterm elections typically hinge on the public’s approval of the incumbent party, that correlation is less strong when it comes to races for the Senate, where the quality of an individual candidate can be a difference maker, Yost said.
He added that Oz and McCormick have poured much money into the race attacking each other, and this has parallels to the 2018 race for governor, when the eventual Republican nominee Scott Wagner never was able to recover from a brutal primary fight.
What’s at stake in the election?
It could be that the Democrats’ tenuous grip on the Senate majority hinges on this race, especially if they are unable to defend one of their seats in Arizona, Georgia or Nevada. Keeping control of the Senate could be key for Democrats’ regulatory agenda, given that key roles at regulatory agencies like the Federal Communications Commission remain unfilled and require Senate confirmation.
Biden could also find himself unable to confirm judges to the federal bench without a Democratic majority in the Senate. Democrats successfully confirmed 42 federal judges last year, the most in a president’s first year in office since John F. Kennedy, and that number rose to 58 as of last month, according to Russell Wheeler, visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Meanwhile, if another vacancy were to open on the Supreme Court, history suggests Republicans would be very unlikely to confirm a replacement nominated by a Democratic president.