Why Pennsylvania looks like Democrats' best hope of flipping a Senate seat this November

John Fetterman, left, and Mehmet Oz
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With one month to go until the primary election, Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is leading in the polls for the Democratic Party’s nomination for an open U.S. Senate seat, while the Republican race has narrowed to an expensive two-person contest.

The retirement of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey has opened up two primaries in what might be the Democratic Party’s best chance to gain a Senate seat in the fall. The Democratic frontrunner since the beginning of the race, Fetterman is looking to maintain his polling lead through the May 17 primary.

Fetterman has been a prolific fundraiser, building on a reputation he established in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election when he loudly rebutted claims of election fraud leveled by Republicans. The tall, goateed and tattooed Fetterman has a distinctive look for a would-be senator, standing out in crowds as he campaigns though rural areas where the GOP typically enjoys wide margins of victory.

John Fetterman
Senate candidate John Fetterman speaking with potential voters in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., on Saturday. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images)

Fetterman has campaigned on legalizing recreational marijuana use and ending the legislative filibuster in the Senate, and has been an outspoken supporter of gay and transgender rights, including flying a pro-trans flag from his Harrisburg office.

His biggest rival in the Democratic primary is Rep. Conor Lamb, a moderate who represents a Pittsburgh-area district. Last month Politico reported that Lamb was trailing Fetterman by 30 points. Since then, a super-PAC aligned with Lamb began airing an ad that called Fetterman a “self-described democratic socialist.”

The ad landed with a thud, in large part because that is not how Fetterman describes himself, and was criticized by leading Democratic lawmakers like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren before getting pulled from the airwaves. While Lamb had his best fundraising quarter to start the year, Fetterman still has millions more on hand.

Fetterman has been criticized for skipping the first debate with Lamb and Malcolm Kenyatta, a state legislator also running for the Democratic nomination. He's also been knocked for a 2013 incident in which Fetterman — then the mayor of Braddock, a small Pittsburgh suburb — chased down an unarmed Black jogger with a shotgun.

Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and Rep. Conor Lamb
Pennsylvania state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, left, and Rep. Conor Lamb in a forum for Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate in Allentown, Pa., earlier this month. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Fetterman has said that he thought he had heard gunfire and that he was unaware of the jogger’s race when he chased the man down. “The people of Braddock understand that, as the town’s mayor and chief law enforcement officer, John was acting to keep his community safe,” an aide told the Associated Press earlier this month.

Although he skipped the first debate and a number of other candidate forums, Fetterman is expected to participate in three televised debates ahead of the primary, the first of which will be held on Thursday.

”Debates are an important part of this primary, and I’m proud to have already committed to three,” said Fetterman in a late March statement. “We have believed since the beginning of this campaign that voters deserve three debates that reach the most households in markets across Pennsylvania.”

The attacks have yet to have a major effect, at least according to a Franklin & Marshall College Poll released last week that showed Fetterman with 41% support among registered Democrats, compared with 17% backing Lamb and 4% for Kenyatta.

The Republican race, meanwhile, appears far from settled, with two candidates leading the rest of the field in both polling and fundraising: Dr. Mehmet Oz, the former talk show host and cardiothoracic surgeon who moved from New Jersey to run in the race, and David McCormick, a former hedge fund manager who moved from Connecticut.

Mehmet Oz
Mehmet Oz speaking at a campaign event in York, Pa., in February. (Hannah Beier/Reuters)

McCormick has hired a number of former President Donald Trump’s staffers and has painted himself as an “America First” candidate. He’s also won the backing of Sean Parnell, a former congressional candidate who was endorsed by Trump before abruptly leaving the race over accusations of domestic violence.

But that wasn’t enough to keep Trump from backing Oz earlier this month in an endorsement that immediately proved controversial among the ex-president’s supporters. In an April 9 statement, Trump argued that Oz — a regular guest on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show — would “do very well in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where other candidates will just not be accepted.”

The Trump endorsement will likely aid Oz in battling accusations that he’s not conservative enough, although McCormick has largely stayed with that line of attack, accusing the celebrity doctor of being an erstwhile liberal.

The two wealthy Republican rivals have been pummeling each other in TV ads since late last year. According to financial disclosure forms, Oz and McCormick had spent a combined $18 million of their own money on the race through the end of March. McCormick also has the backing of a super-PAC that received $5 million from Chicago hedge fund chief Ken Griffin earlier this year.

Dave McCormick, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, meets with attendees during a campaign event at the Round the Clock Diner in York, Pa., Monday, April 4, 2022. (Matt Rourke/AP)
David McCormick, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, at a campaign event in York, Pa. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Oz, who would be first Muslim U.S. senator, has accused McCormick of “bigoted attacks” and said he would renounce his dual citizenship with Turkey if he were elected to the Senate. Oz served in the Turkish military in the 1980s, and says he maintains his citizenship to “care for my ailing mother,” who lives in Turkey.

Both the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics rate the November general election as a toss-up.

In addition to the Senate race and a number of competitive House races, Pennsylvania has an open governor’s race, with incumbent Democrat Tom Wolf stepping down due to term limits.

In recent years, the state has seen a number of close results in big races, including the last two presidential races and Toomey’s 2016 reelection, all of which were decided by less than 2 points.