Abuse allegations against Senate candidate Parnell put Republicans on edge in Pennsylvania

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Everything in Pennsylvania's Republican Senate primary was pointing in Sean Parnell's direction.

Parnell, a decorated former Army Ranger-turned-author and frequent Fox News guest who launched his Senate bid in May after he narrowly lost a House race in 2020, won former President Donald Trump's endorsement in September, becoming the early front-runner in a critical race for GOP hopes of taking back the Senate.

But accusations of domestic violence exploded into public view this month during custody hearings in state family court, threatening to damage his candidacy.

Seeking primary custody of the couple's children in divorce proceedings, Parnell's estranged wife, Laurie Snell, testified under oath before a judge about abuse she says she and occasionally their children endured. Parnell took the stand this week to forcefully deny her accusations. Still, her testimony, according to six sources who spoke with NBC News, has put Republicans on edge.

"You can't be walking into a general election in a tough state like Pennsylvania fighting with an arm behind your back, and that's what will happen if you've got a candidate who's got terribly weaponizable moments from their life like this exposed," said Nick Everhart, a Republican media consultant who has experience in Pennsylvania. "You're seeing other credible names emerge, because with the wind at our back and a chance to win in Pennsylvania, there's real hope that [Parnell] sees the writing on the wall to get out and step aside for the greater good."

The timing of a high-profile court case involving serious accusations against a once-promising Senate candidate is particularly frustrating for a GOP eager to take advantage of fresh opportunities. After a triumph last week in the race for governor in Virginia, where Republicans proved they could win with a candidate who isn't deeply devoted to Trump, their top prospective Senate recruit, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, decided not to run. That makes Pennsylvania even more crucial to the party's efforts to break Democrats' slim hold on the Senate next year.

One of Parnell's primary opponents began raising questions about Parnell's personal conduct in September, after Trump issued his endorsement. Republican Jeff Bartos, a former nominee for lieutenant governor, used an interview and a website hosted by his campaign to call attention to documents that showed that Snell obtained temporary protection from abuse orders from Parnell in 2017 and 2018.

Neither order was made permanent, and both were expunged from the record without Snell's objection, which she acknowledged in court this week, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

But during her testimony last week, Snell gave previously unknown details about what she says prompted her to seek the orders. Snell testified that Parnell once choked her on a couch to the point that she had to bite him to break free, The Inquirer reported. She said his abusive behavior started before their marriage in 2010 and became worse in 2018, the year they separated.

According to The Inquirer, she testified that Parnell called her a "whore" and a "piece of s---" while pinning her down. She testified that in 2008, when she was pregnant with their first child, Parnell briefly forced her out of their vehicle during a trip and told her to "go get an abortion."

Snell also alleged that Parnell once slapped one of their three children hard enough on the back to leave marks.

Responding in court Monday and Tuesday, Parnell denied the allegations, testifying that he never choked Snell or pinned her down, struck their children or suggested that Snell should get an abortion. He accused Snell of making up a claim that he had punched a closet door so hard that it hit one of their children in the face and left a bruise. He also denied that a photo that Snell's attorneys claimed depicted one of their children with a handprint-shaped welt on the back was actually of their child.

"It just wasn't a good relationship," he said, according to The Inquirer.

Parnell's attorneys also noted that a judge had rejected Snell's 2018 request for a permanent restraining order based on allegations of child abuse, which Parnell testified didn't happen.

While having lived apart for three years, Parnell and Snell split custody of their children evenly. Both are seeking primary custody, NBC affiliate WPXI of Pittsburgh reported.

In a separate case, Snell is suing Parnell's nonprofit organization, which assists veterans in accessing certain services, alleging that she experienced a "hostile work environment" while she was working for a company that did business with his organization, followed by "retaliation" after the couple separated.

Snell and a representative for Parnell didn't respond to requests for comment.

"The past week has been unquestionably the most trying in my young family's life," Parnell said in a statement after he appeared in court Tuesday. "I love my kids, and being their father is the greatest honor I have ever had. Now that I have had the opportunity to present my case I will not have anything further to say until the judge issues his ruling."

Most national and Pennsylvania Republicans who spoke with NBC News were reluctant to openly weigh in on a fight that could put them at odds with Trump, and they requested anonymity to speak candidly.

"We're in a world where we say nothing matters anymore," said a GOP strategist who works on Senate races. "But we're talking about a guy accused of hitting his wife and his kids, and that does matter."

Parnell hasn't appeared on Fox News programming since Sept. 28, according to a search of an Internet Archive database. A Franklin & Marshall College poll conducted before the allegations were aired found that while he was ahead of the pack, his support had actually dipped since a survey in the summer.

Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr., another top backer, appear to be sticking with Parnell, at least for now. Punchbowl News reported last week that the elder Trump announced a fundraiser for Parnell scheduled for January at his estate in Mar-a-Lago, Florida.

A spokesman for the former president didn't respond to a request for comment.

Other prominent backers, like Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Reps. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, and Guy Reschenthaler, R-Pa., didn't respond to requests for comment. The re-election campaign of Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Pa., another Parnell backer, responded that it had no comment "in regards to the Parnell personal attacks."

Trump's endorsement is, for now, the one thing Parnell has going for him in the race, the strategist said, adding: "His endorsement carries tremendous weight. If he were to take away the endorsement, Parnell's done."

One Pennsylvania Republican, who said he had harbored doubts about Parnell before the allegations were made public in Snell's testimony, said the allegations "are going to dog" Parnell "for the whole campaign," regardless of how the judge rules.

"It's just a mess. I don't know how he stays in the race. I just don't see it. But this is a new world," the person said.

A Parnell ally said most donors and other political supporters are waiting on a ruling in the custody case before they make any moves.

"This is very black and white to me," the person said. "If he loses custody of his kids, the campaign is over for him. But if he keeps custody, I truly believe he will survive, win the primary with ease and then defeat the Democrat in the general."

But others are looking to second choices in the race, which also features Bartos, the former nominee for lieutenant governor; Carla Sands, Trump's former ambassador to Denmark; Kathy Barnette, who, like Parnell, ran a failed congressional bid last fall; and other lesser-known candidates.

Sands, given her service in the Trump administration, could emerge as a Trump-friendly alternative. Bartos already has statewide name recognition from his 2018 run.

And two new names emerged in recent days. On Twitter, former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway called attention Tuesday to a Washington Free Beacon report about efforts to recruit hedge fund CEO David McCormick, the husband of former Trump administration official Dina Powell, into the race. The same day, The Free Beacon reported that Dr. Mehmet Oz, the TV doctor, was "preparing" a campaign and quoted a nondenial from a spokesperson who said Oz "has received encouragement to run for the U.S. Senate, but is currently focused on our show."

The Democratic side features a deep primary field, too, with Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Rep. Conor Lamb, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh among those seeking the party's nomination.

"There's still plenty of time for him to tell his story if he gets a good ruling from the judge in the coming days or weeks," Vince Galko, a Pennsylvania-based GOP strategist, said of Parnell, adding that media reports about potential new candidates reflect "discontent and dissatisfaction" among voters and donors.

"The fact that more people are getting into the race than getting out and no one is solidifying behind any candidate at this point shows it's still an open race," Galko said.