Parnell allegations roil GOP bid to keep Pennsylvania Senate seat
New allegations of abuse against former President Trump’s pick to succeed retiring Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) are setting off a panic among some Republicans as the party looks to maintain its grip on one of the most competitive Senate seats in the country next year.
Since Trump endorsed Republican Sean Parnell’s Pennsylvania Senate campaign in September, the retired Army Ranger and author has faced a series of damaging headlines. One of his rivals for the GOP nomination revealed that Parnell’s estranged wife had sought protective orders against him. Last month, a judge rejected Parnell’s request for a sweeping gag order that would have barred his wife and her attorney from discussing those protective orders.
Then on Monday, Parnell’s wife, Laurie Snell, accused him in court of physical and verbal abuse, alleging that he once tried to choke her, verbally accosted her and hit their children, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Snell is seeking primary custody of their children. The couple currently splits custody.
That testimony has deepened the concerns of some Republicans who have become increasingly wary of Parnell’s candidacy, fearing that the allegations against him could jeopardize their efforts to hold on to a coveted Senate seat in a hotly contested battleground state.
“This is the kind of thing that kills campaigns,” one Republican consultant who has worked on Senate campaigns said. “Forget the Trump endorsement for a minute. I think we need to take a step back and ask if this is really the candidate we want to move forward with.”
Parnell has vigorously denied his wife’s allegations. He and his attorney are expected to present their case in court next week.
“We anxiously await the opportunity to refute these hurtful, baseless allegations,” Parnell said in a statement Monday. “Let me emphatically state: I have never raised a hand in anger towards my wife or any of our three children. What happened today in court was not justice, nor did it have any basis in fact or truth. Next week, I’ll have an opportunity to present the truth to the court and I look forward to that opportunity.”
Parnell’s campaign has also pushed back against the notion that the protective orders sought by his wife in 2017 and 2018 amount to evidence of wrongdoing. The first of those temporary protective orders ended upon an agreement between Parnell and Snell. The second one was dismissed by a judge following a hearing.
Still, Parnell’s messy divorce and ongoing child custody battle has prompted questions about his ability to compete. Jeff Bartos, a real estate developer who’s also seeking the GOP Senate nomination in Pennsylvania, has dubbed Parnell “unelectable,” and a super PAC supporting Bartos has already begun an ad campaign attacking Parnell.
At the same time, the controversies swirling around Parnell are likely to provide fodder for Democrats ahead of the 2022 general election. Several high-profile Democrats are already running for Toomey’s seat, seeing it as one of their best opportunities to expand the party’s razor-thin Senate majority.
Among the Democrats seeking their party’s Senate nomination are Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Rep. Conor Lamb, Montgomery County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Val Arkoosh and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.
Former Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.), who has expressed interest in the Pennsylvania Senate race but hasn’t jumped in, excoriated Parnell after news of his wife’s testimony broke, calling him a “disaster of a candidate” and asserting that he would be a liability for Republicans in the 2022 general election.
“Let me emphatically state he would’ve lost the General by 5 before this, even to the do-nothing clown Fetterman, but now it’s clear he’d lose to a golden retriever by double digits,” Costello tweeted.
Parnell rose to prominence in conservative media circles after he penned a memoir of his service in Afghanistan. He landed a speaking slot at the 2020 Republican National Convention before narrowly losing a bid to unseat Lamb, who he could end up facing in next year’s general election.
He’s hewed closely to Trump and received an early endorsement from the former president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., months before Trump himself weighed in on the Senate race.
The concern among some Republicans stems from the fact that Trump endorsed Parnell so early in the primary, boosting him to likely front-runner status in an otherwise competitive nominating contest.
Polling in the primary has been scarce, but one survey conducted in late October by Franklin and Marshall College showed Parnell leading the GOP field, albeit with only 11 percent support. The overwhelming majority of Republicans — 78 percent — remain undecided.
Still, that represents a slight downward tick for Parnell, who notched 14 percent support in another Franklin and Marshall College poll conducted in August before Bartos revealed that Parnell’s wife had sought the protective orders.
The stakes of the Pennsylvania Senate race are high for both parties. Republicans need to net just one Senate seat in 2022 to recapture control of the upper chamber, and a loss in Pennsylvania would make that goal harder to reach. Democrats, meanwhile, are scrambling to strengthen their thin Senate majority and are eager to flip a seat in a state that President Biden carried last year, albeit narrowly.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee and its chairman, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), have vowed to stay out of open primaries in 2022.
While Republicans are largely satisfied with Trump’s list of endorsements so far, some have grown concerned about Parnell. One GOP operative expressed frustration that the former president had weighed in on the race so early and suggested that he should consider rescinding his endorsement in light of the recent allegations.
“You got to know when to cut your losses,” the operative said. “Maybe this is the time for that.”
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