The Pennsylvania scrum for Toomey’s US Senate seat

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) is seen during a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing to discuss oversight of the CARES Act within the Federal Reserve and Department of Treasury on Tuesday, September 28, 2021.
Greg Nash

The race for the U.S. Senate in the Pennsylvania Republican primary is nothing like the state has ever seen — raucous free-for-all that only looks tame when compared to the circus for governor.

Years of terrible party leadership left the state’s Republican Party bereft of “A” list candidates to replace retiring Sen. Pat Toomey — for that matter, it’s bereft of B, C, or D-list candidates as well. And, since politics abhors a vacuum, the open Senate seat has sucked in a myriad of hopefuls — 13 at last count — some serious, some not. Remarkably, for a decidedly nativist state, the top contenders are all recent arrivals or returnees, using their checkbooks to buy their way in. The vast, cacophonous crowd of hopefuls has vexed party leaders, who wish an all-star candidate will emerge.

Ironically, Republicans shouldn’t really need an “A” list candidate in the current political environment.

Any president’s first mid-term is a problematic election for his party. Excepting the outlier year of 2002, the president’s party has lost an average of 53 seats in the House and an average of four Senate seats in the past three such elections. Reaching those gains this year will be difficult, as the GOP is defending 20 seats, compared to the Democrats’ 14 — but Republicans should be expected to gain at least a seat or two.

Typically, the party not in control of the White House wins all the seats in favorable partisan states plus all the toss-ups and those seats slightly favoring the opposing party. The Cook Political Report lists six seats as toss-ups, including Pennsylvania, and one seat (New Hampshire) as a “Lean Democratic.” Sweeping those seats would give the GOP a four-seat gain.

It certainly looks like a typically bad mid-term election for the president’s party this year. President Biden has a RealClearPolitics average approval of just 41 percent, 13-points under water, with that average boosted by a mere 4-point deficit in the YouGov poll. Trump’s ratings averaged just 1 point worse in early February 2018, with his numbers barely budging by mid-term Election Day. Republicans lost 41 House seats then — but also won two Senate seats, due in large part to the Democrats having to defend 24 seats.

Pennsylvania Republicans have both the mid-term elections on their side and history. Only once in its entire history has the Pennsylvania GOP failed to hold at least one of the state’s U.S. Senate seats: 1944-46. That’s not counting the late Sen. Arlen Specter’s party switch in 2009, after which he was unceremoniously dumped by the Democrats. To be fair though, the Democrats had a pretty good run from 1827 to 1857.

The sum and substance of all this is that national party and state Republicans do not need a top-tier candidate in this environment.

The party just needs an acceptable alternative to the Democrats.

A generic candidate with as few warts as possible and some experience running for office would fit the bill perfectly. Of the list of current serious candidates, former candidate for lt. gov., Jeff Bartos, would seem the best match, with hedge fund manager David McCormick a decent second option – and with a much bigger checkbook.

Unfortunately for Pennsylvania Republicans, New Jersey TV doctor Mehmet Oz has jumped into the race, seemingly from out of nowhere. With little grassroots support and claiming his in-laws’ home as his residence, Oz apparently hopes to ride his name recognition and plenty of Fauci-bashing through the crowded field. Oz would seem to be the kind of celebrity candidate that’s been all the rage of late — but the current environment and the mid-term dynamic makes his celebrity worthless in a general election. His years of TV time will yield plenty of clips that can be used against him; Democratic super PACs and dark money organizations are likely to turn Dr. Oz into a shady quack by November. And his lack of Pennsylvania roots — in a very nativist state — is a distinct liability.

Pennsylvania Democrats face the opposite problem: how to buck the political headwinds and win a seat they should not.

To win they will have to excite their base; thus, they need the opposite strategy as the Republicans: charisma and bombast. Instead, however, party insiders are trying to engineer the nomination of bland but safe U.S. Rep. Connor Lamb over the charisma and progressive celebrity of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.

Both from Pittsburgh, Lamb and Fetterman couldn’t be more opposite. Lamb won a sort-of upset in a Trump mid-term special election for Congress against an atrociously incompetent Republican. Running as a centrist and continuing in that theme (but voting the Biden-progressive party line in Congress), Lamb is viewed as a safe and soothing choice who could slide into the Senate.

What Democrats are missing is the fact that Lamb still is stuck with his voting record on major issues, a loud, unpopular progressive left that is likely to push him to the extremes, and the mid-term drag.

Establishment Democrats recoil at the thought of Fetterman, a progressive darling and caution-to-the-wind celebrity who has excited the Democratic base. As a result, grassroots money is pouring into Fetterman’s campaign. In a bad year, candidates like Fetterman have the ability to counter the cycle by pushing up turnout that is normally depressed in a mid-term election.

Neither FiveThirtyEight nor RealClearPolitics has posted decent primary race polling for Pennsylvania, but FiveThirtyEight has shown Fetterman leading likely Republican contenders — although the polls have small samples, the lead is not that much and his higher name identification is surely helping.

Democrats are likely to end up with the celebrity they don’t want but need, while Republicans may be stuck with a celebrity some think they need, but don’t.

Then again, maybe the GOP will end up with a “nobody” who fits the bill for this election cycle. Regardless, the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race is most likely going to be a carnival-like scramble all the way to November.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Celebrity celebrity candidate Conor Lamb David McCormick Dr. Oz Jeff Bartos Joe Biden John Fetterman Mehmet Oz Pat Toomey Pennsylvania Pennsylvania Democratic Party Pennsylvania primary election Pennsylvania Republican Party Pennsylvania Republicans Republican Party of Pennsylvania United States Senate United States Senate election in Pennsylvania

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