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HARRISBURG, Pa. – The Pennsylvania Democratic State Committee failed to endorse a candidate for U.S. Senate at its annual winter meeting on Saturday after no candidate received the two-thirds majority necessary to win an official state party blessing.
Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), who orchestrated the most energetic vote whipping operation, won 60% of the votes, and said that he was pleased with the outcome, despite not winning the endorsement.
“Sixty percent is a commanding lead,” Lamb told reporters after the vote. “We put a lot of work into this and really showed respect for the committee members in the process.”
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) — a polling and fundraising leader — won the second-most votes, followed by state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D) of Philadelphia, and Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.
Arkoosh did not obtain the 15% of votes needed for her votes to count, forcing her supporters to either abstain or cast their votes elsewhere in the second round of voting.
Kenyatta told reporters that he had already proved his doubters wrong by clearing the 15% viability threshold. “This is a big coup for our campaign,” he said.
Arkoosh and a spokesperson for Fetterman both downplayed the significance of the vote.
The show of support for Lamb among party insiders is far from a decisive indicator of how the contentious Senate primary will play out in May, but nonetheless speaks to how some Democrats have become more risk averse as it becomes clearer that the party faces an uphill battle in the midterm elections in November.
Rather than discuss policy differences as they might have in earlier races, all four major Democratic candidates and their supporters at Saturday’s meeting were squarely focused on the slippery question of “electability.”
Lamb’s supporters noted that he has proven his ability to win in white working-class corners of Pennsylvania that went heavily for former President Donald Trump. He was first elected to Congress in a March 2018 special election to fill an open seat in a district that Trump won by 19 percentage points in 2016.
In a speech to the members of the Pennsylvania Democratic Committee assembled both in a hotel ballroom and remotely via video, Lamb pointed to all three victories as evidence that he has what it takes to defeat Republicans in November.
“You have a chance today to put fear into the heart of Dr. Oz, and Dave McCormick, and that whole cast of characters because they don’t want to run against Conor Lamb,” he said, referring to the top two candidates seeking the Republican Senate nomination.
The debate among Pennsylvania Democrats about the best way to win the U.S. Senate seat soon to be vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey reflects larger discussions in the party over how to build a winning coalition at a time when the party’s voters are increasingly concentrated in major metropolitan areas.
Not unlike backers of President Joe Biden during the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Lamb’s supporters cast him as a consensus candidate — a veteran of the U.S. Marines with strong ties to organized labor and a mainstream Democrat who identifies neither with the party’s left wing nor the small band of conservative outliers holding up pieces of Biden’s agenda in Congress.
“His record in Congress speaks to the sweet spot in the Democratic Party,” said Mike Veon, a former state representative who is backing Lamb. “And, therefore, it is attractive and interesting to the blue-collar worker in western Pennsylvania, and still [offers] plenty enough for suburban women in the suburbs of Philadelphia.”
Supporters of Kenyatta and Fetterman have their own arguments about why their preferred candidates would be the best contenders to defeat Republicans in November.
Kenyatta, who is Black and openly gay, has impressed poll watchers with the endorsements he’s racked up from fellow elected officials and labor unions, including SEIU’s Pennsylvania state council. And while he has a history as a mainstream Democrat — he supported Biden in the 2020 primary — he is running as a progressive proponent of Medicare for All with the backing of left-leaning groups like the Working Families Party.
Speaking to a room full of Democratic officials on Saturday, Kenyatta rejected the notion that the party cannot flip Toomey’s Senate seat with him as their nominee.
“There are some people who think we have to make a false choice between winning and winning for our values,” he said. “But those two things are inseparable.”
Kenyatta elaborated on his theory of victory with reporters after the vote on Saturday, contending that his progressive views and ability to communicate with Black voters would help Democrats drive up turnout in a midterm election when many voters the party needs tend to stay home.
“It’s always how we win, when we expand the electorate,” he said.
Asked about criticism from the left for his support of Biden in the 2020 primary, Kenyatta replied, “My very existence is progressive, so I don’t know what the hell people are talking about.”
There is some overlap between Fetterman’s strategy and Kenyatta’s.
Fetterman, a former small-city mayor known for his towering height and casual fashion sense, is competing with Kenyatta for progressive voters. And like Kenyatta, he is selling Pennsylvania Democrats on the idea that the party can’t simply nominate the safest seeming candidate in the hopes of assembling a presidential-election cycle coalition of hyper-partisan Democrats and frequent voters.
“2022 is going to be a tough year for Democrats to win in Pennsylvania,” Fetterman told Democratic state committee members in Harrisburg on Saturday. “We’re not going to have the Trump tailwind at our back to push us over the edge. We’re going to need a different kind of map to win in 2022.”
Fetterman went on to suggest that his presence as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s running mate in 2018 at least partly contributed to Democrats’ improved performance in that cycle of midterm elections, relative to the 2014 midterm elections.
But Fetterman, a social media-savvy politician who developed a national reputation for his efforts to spur economic development and fight gun violence in the small, distressed city of Braddock, just outside Pittsburgh, is also something of a party outsider. He ran a failed bid for the Democratic Senate nomination in 2016, a cycle in which he endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for president. And he won in 2018 after mounting a successful primary challenge against then-Lt. Gov. Mike Stack (D).
His supporters see his gritty persona — he wore gym shorts to visit the site of a bridge collapse in Pittsburgh on Friday — and occasionally less-than-rosy relationships with the Democratic Party brass as assets, particularly in rural counties where Democrats have been losing ground for decades.
To wit, Fetterman has toured rural counties extensively as lieutenant governor and touts his commitment to running a campaign in all of the state’s 67 counties.
Diane Syphrit, a member of the Mercer County Democratic Committee who is backing Fetterman, was effusive about the 120-person turnout Fetterman had received for a recent weekday campaign event in her county.
“I don’t want a typical politician,” Syphrit said. “I want a real person.”
James Heckman, a manufacturing worker and member of the McKean County Democrartic Committee, said the prospect of Dr. Mehmet Oz winning the Republican nomination made the case for picking Fetterman that much stronger.
“Fetterman is the only one who has the star power to take him on,” Heckman said.
If Fetterman hopes to over-perform in mostly white rural areas, he may have a harder time consolidating support among the Black voters who make up the heart of the Democratic base.
His troubles stem from an incident in 2013 that occurred while Fetterman was serving as mayor of Braddock, which is predominantly Black. Fetterman chased a Black jogger in his pickup truck and detained him with a shotgun until the police arrived. Fetterman had heard gunshots outside his home and thought the jogger wearing a face covering, Christopher Miyares, might have been responsible. The police released Miyares after finding no weapon on him.
Fetterman has stood by his actions. After announcing his candidacy last February, Fetterman released a video explaining the incident as the product of a “series of split-second decisions” that he made to protect his son, who was 4 years old at the time.
But festering suspicion of Fetterman resurfaced last week when several Black clergy members expressed dismay at Fetterman for failing to appear at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in Philadelphia.
Fetterman’s team said that they had informed the organizers that attending was logistically impossible because he needed to be present on the first day of the state Senate’s legislative session. But some Black Democrats insist that he could have arrived later in the day, or otherwise considered his explanation inadequate.
“It just did not seem like he was making that much of an effort and given the times that we live in and with, you know, police brutality being in the headlines so much … it makes me question his ability to lead a diverse state and represent my interests,” said Turea Hutson, a Black member of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee who was deciding between Lamb and Kenyatta prior to the vote on Saturday.
More broadly, both Fetterman and Kenyatta are likely to face skepticism from some Democrats fearful of a 2010-style bloodbath.
After Hillary Clinton’s presidential election loss in 2016, some progressives insisted that Sanders — or another more left-wing candidate — would have won in her stead. But by the time Biden eked out a win in 2020, Democrats had flipped the House and then the White House and Senate on the backs of relatively moderate Democrats, rather than the activist left’s preferred contenders.
And new data has cast doubt on left-leaning candidates’ claims that Democrats can assemble winning coalitions in general elections by juicing turnout among young and non-white voters.
For example, Biden only bested Trump by 2 percentage points among new voters, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of validated voter data. And while Trump made significant inroads with Latino voters, Biden’s biggest improvement on Clinton’s 2016 performance was with white voters, according to the Democratic data firm Catalist’s analysis of official data.
Some Pennsylvania Democrats told HuffPost that their experience seeing left-wing candidates fall short after promising to reshape the electorate informed their perspectives. Janet Diaz, a member of the Lancaster County Democratic Committee running for the state House of Representatives, said that watching Democratic congressional candidate Jess King, a staunch progressive, lose by a wide margin in the 2018 elections helped convince her to back Lamb.
Lamb “can work across the table” with Republicans, Diaz said. “And that’s what we need.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.