Republicans vie for Trump’s mantle in Pa. Senate primary

Jeff Bartos, Sean Parnell and Carla Sands in a photo illustration of Pennsylvania
Courtesy of Jeff Bartos/Getty Images/U.S. Consulate/Linda Petre

Republicans are bracing for a potentially heated Senate primary in Pennsylvania that will see candidates competing to tie themselves to former President Trump.

A number of candidates with ties to the former president are considering runs, including Trump’s former ambassador to Denmark, Carla Sands. Meanwhile, former congressional candidate Sean Parnell, who is close with Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., announced his candidacy on Tuesday.

Real estate developer and former lieutenant governor candidate Jeff Bartos was the first top-tier candidate to jump into the race and has also voiced his support for Trump.

Pennsylvania insiders say that while Trump lost the state in November, the former president’s economic message rings true with Republican voters in the state.

“He’s by no means toxic in any way. It was a very tight election in the state,” said Matt Beynon, a former adviser to former presidential candidate Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). “Both he and the policies that he advocated are going to likely be front and center again this cycle.”

The primary comes as the GOP faces historic divides across the country, including in the Keystone State. Retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), whose seat is up for grabs, is a vocal critic of Trump’s, voting to convict the then-president in his Senate impeachment trial earlier this year. Pennsylvania’s GOP stopped short of censuring Toomey but voted in favor of a “strong rebuke” against the senator over his impeachment vote.

Toomey has yet to get involved in the Senate race, instead focusing on the governor’s race.

Insiders say that while some potential GOP candidates are still weighing a run for the seat, the top tier has already been formed with Bartos, Parnell and Sands.

“Wide open. There’s two tiers that have been established. The top tier is wide open, but the top tier has distanced itself from the field,” said one Pennsylvania-based GOP source.

Last month, Bartos announced he raised $1.1 million for his Senate bid, but filings show the candidate loaned $400,000 of that amount to his campaign. He also has a super PAC, Jobs for Our Future, backing his bid.

Bartos jumped into the race in March, colorfully pledging on Twitter to “get shit done” in the Senate. He invoked the former president in his statement announcing his candidacy, saying Trump fought for Pennsylvanians who felt forgotten in Washington.

But Bartos has also kept a healthy distance between himself and Trump.

The Pennsylvania Republican has expressed his support for a number of Trump policies, including those on Israel and the decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal, but has not echoed Trump’s claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. He has stopped short of accusing the former president of inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Bartos was not Trump’s choice in the state’s 2018 Senate race. He dropped out and ran for lieutenant governor after then-Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Pa.) launched his Senate campaign with Trump’s support.

Parnell, on the other hand, is a close ally of the Trump family. Trump Jr. said in February that Parnell “has my support for any office he decides to run for in 2022.”

In 2020, Parnell came up short in his bid for Pennsylvania’s 17th District, losing to Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) by roughly 2 points.

A second Pennsylvania-based GOP source said the National Republican Congressional Committee tried to persuade Parnell to launch another House bid in 2022 but said Parnell “was full-steam ahead” on running for Senate.

Parnell proved to be a strong fundraiser last year, raking in close to $4 million during his campaign. But there is still skepticism as to how well Parnell could perform in the state that has seen Democratic gains since Trump won there in 2016.

“If you can’t beat Conor Lamb in a Trump-friendly House district, how are you going to win statewide?” the second GOP source said.

Sands is also said to be gearing up for a run. The first Pennsylvania-based source indicated that Sands has kept in touch with Trump. Multiple sources noted that she hired the political consulting firm Axiom Strategies.

There are also questions as to whether she will self-fund, which could prove to be a boon to her campaign.

Sands took over Vintage Capital Group, which as of 2016 had around $150 million in assets, in 2015 after her husband, Fred, died in that year.

“In a federal election where there’s contribution limits, $15-20 million of your wealth goes a long, long way,” said the second Pennsylvania-based source.

The Democratic side of the race is expected to be contentious as well, with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh already declared. Lamb and state Sen. Sharif Street are also said to be eyeing potential bids.

Fetterman, the Democratic field’s current front-runner, has already come under fire from state party leaders, with many arguing he does not represent the party’s diversity.

Another factor for Democrats to consider heading into 2022 is the looming redistricting set to take place across the Keystone State. Pennsylvania is one of seven states to lose a congressional seat, and political watchers expect that seat will come out of western Pennsylvania, noting that is where the population decrease has taken place. The dynamic is expected to have major implications on the Democratic side as the seat occupied by Lamb could be on the chopping block, forcing him to run for statewide office.

Ultimately, the race will place a major role in determining which party controls the upper chamber.

Despite Trump’s loss and Democratic inroads in the state, Republicans argue that they will have an opportunity to challenge President Biden and the Democrats’ economic record in the state where Trump persuaded voters with his economic messaging in 2016.

“By next November, we’re going to have a strong opportunity to contrast those with the Biden administration proposing $6 trillion in spending over the last three months,” Beynon, the former Santorum adviser, said. “Is the economic rebound what it should be coming out of COVID?”

“I would be surprised if any of the serious Republican candidates run away from that policy record,” he added.

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden Lou Barletta Pat Toomey Pennsylvania donald trump mantle sands parnell bartos senate primary candidates campaign
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