Progressive, centrist, Trumper? These Pa. 2022 candidates could change the balance of power in the U.S. Senate

  • Katie Meyer/WHYY

More than any other state, Pennsylvania has a good shot at changing the balance of power in the U.S. Senate after the 2022 midterm election.

Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey’s retirement is leaving a rare power vacuum in one of the country’s swingiest swing states, and Cook Political Report analyst Jessica Taylor, who is tracking key Senate races around the country, says that has led to a genuinely unpredictable outcome.

“There are only two states on the map that Republicans hold that Democrats won in the presidential race, and those are Pennsylvania and Wisconsin,” she said. “Of those races, Pennsylvania, I think especially given that it’s an open seat, is really the best opportunity that Democrats have to flip a seat.”

The dynamics could change as the primary and general elections draw closer, Taylor said. But right now, she says Democrats appear to be in a slightly stronger position because Republicans are still struggling to chart a post-Trump political course.

Establishment Republicans, Taylor notes, are lining up behind Jeff Bartos, while those aligned with Trump favor Sean Parnell, whom she calls a “riskier” choice.

The intra-party split isn’t quite as pronounced on the Democratic side of the aisle, she noted, but it’s still present. It’s unclear if Democratic primary voters will consolidate behind a progressive candidate, like John Fetterman or Malcolm Kenyatta, or a more centrist contender like Conor Lamb or Val Arkoosh.

National mood could make personality and policy differences moot, as midterms often bring a backlash against whichever party holds the presidency.

It will matter, Taylor said, “where President Biden’s numbers are a year from now.”

“If the national environment is bad [for Democrats], having a candidate who can be problematic, like Sean Parnell, may not matter,” she said.

Scroll down to read about the candidates for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat. This list will be updated as new information surfaces.

Democratic candidates:

Malcolm Kenyatta, 31

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

FILE PHOTO: Pa. State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta urges voters to wake up to voter suppression tactics.

Current occupation: State representative
Political history: Community organizer, legislative staffer
Hometown: North Philadelphia

Kenyatta, a two-term state representative from North Philly, is running a progressive campaign rooted largely in social justice. At 31, he would be the youngest member of the U.S. Senate.

The first openly gay Black man to serve in Pennsylvania’s legislature, Kenyatta says his platform is rooted in his own experience growing up poor in Philly. He wants to reduce or eliminate student loan debt and create free higher education options, raise the federal minimum wage, and impose a wealth tax on people worth $50 million or more, among other things. He’s also the only major Senate candidate who has said he’d support a moratorium on fracking.

Between his graduation from Temple University and his 2018 election to the legislature, Kenyatta worked behind the scenes in city politics and got involved in community activism.

He is a longtime ally of President Joe Biden. While many of his fellow young, urban Pennsylvania progressives supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2020 race, Kenyatta threw his hat in for Biden early. He became a prominent surrogate for the former vice president, getting significant airtime on cable news throughout the race, and eventually being named a “rising star” in the party during the 2020 DNC, alongside fellow candidate Conor Lamb.

John Fetterman, 52

Pa. Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman speaks to the press after Sheppard’s hearing.

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

FILE PHOTO: Pa. Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman speaks to the press.

Current occupation: Lieutenant governor
Political history: Braddock mayor, ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 2016
Hometown: Braddock

Fetterman, former mayor of the small steel town of Braddock, and current Pennsylvania lieutenant governor, has a phrase he has repeated throughout his candidacy for U.S. Senate: “the union way of life is sacred.”

Fetterman, a progressive who wants universal healthcare, legal weed, and an overhauled criminal justice system, is taking a stab at creating the kind of Democratic coalition long thought to be mostly extinct in Pennsylvania: where urban liberals and union workers can find a home under one umbrella.

He’s primarily trying to achieve that through energy policy. Fetterman, who lives across the street from Braddock’s steel mill, has called the tension between ending reliance on fossil fuels and maintaining union energy jobs “a false choice.” He says he supports transitioning away from coal and natural gas, but also says doing it too quickly is unacceptable. A spokesman recently told WHYY that “we can’t just abandon these people, and tell them to go learn how to code.”

Fetterman has easily led the early Democratic field in both fundraising and spending, and has more than $3 million on hand — over $1 million more than his closest Democratic opponent.

Val Arkoosh, 55

Emma Lee / WHYY

Dr. Valerie Arkoosh, Chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, says she misses the coverage she once got from local news outlets and struggles to get information to her constituents.

Current occupation: Chair of Montgomery County Commissioners
Political history: Ran unsuccessfully for Congress (PA-13, now PA-02) in 2014
Hometown: Springfield Township

Arkoosh, a former practicing physician who now serves as the chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, is the only woman running for the Senate seat who has previously held elected office.

She has centered health care in her Senate campaign, noting that as a doctor, she has seen radically different health outcomes based on income, race, and gender. She was a prominent Affordable Care Act advocate during an unsuccessful 2014 run for Congress, and says she still thinks adjusting that program is the best bet for making health care more affordable.

The county Arkoosh currently leads is Pennsylvania’s second wealthiest. It has shifted sharply left over the last decade, moving from a bastion of well-off Republicans, to one of similarly comfortable Democrats.

Many of the accomplishments she lists reflect standard Democratic policy positions — raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour for county workers, and giving those workers six weeks of paid parental leave — while others are more specific to her constituents, like preserving farmland, restoring Montco’s AAA bond rating, and maintaining relatively low property taxes.

Conor Lamb, 37

Gene Puskar / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: In this Nov. 6, 2018 file photo, Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa, in Pennsylvania’s 17th U.S. Congressional District, talks with reporters after voting in Mt. Lebanon, Pa.

Current occupation: Congressman (PA-17)
Political history: Assistant U.S. Attorney
Hometown: Mt. Lebanon

Lamb, a two-term US. representative from Allegheny County, is the most forthrightly moderate member of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate field.

The former Marine and federal prosecutor has balked at big-spending proposals like single-payer health care while in Congress, and differed with the progressive wing of his party on sweeping messaging on defunding police and banning fracking, which he said alienated more conservative Democrats and independents.

Lamb is from a tricky district for Democrats, and has walked a fine political line since he flipped the seat blue in a 2018 special election. He retained it just eight months later in the general election, after being drawn into a new district and being forced to run against an incumbent Republican. He was reelected last year in a contest with a Trump-sympathetic opponent.

Lamb was a relatively late entrant to the U.S. Senate race, but has since confirmed himself to be a formidable fundraiser. After moving his congressional war chest over to the Senate campaign, he has more than $1.7 million on hand, second only to Fetterman among Democrats.

Democrats Likely to join the race:

Sharif Street, 46

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Pa. State Sen. Sharif Street advocated for job creation programs to fight gun violence in the city of Philadelphia at a press conference at City Hall on June 28, 2021.

Current occupation: State senator, Pennsylvania Democratic Party vice-chair
Political history: Lawyer, Chief Democratic advisor on Senate Housing and Urban Development Committee
Hometown: North Philadelphia

A member of the Pa. Senate since 2016, Street has perhaps the most conventional political background of any candidate. His father, John Street, was mayor of Philly from 2000 to 2008, and a longtime City Council member before that.

Street grew up in the world of Philadelphia politics. Though he worked for nearly two decades as a lawyer before entering public life, he says his history factors heavily into his approach to his potential Senate bid. In April, when he filed a statement of candidacy and launched an exploratory committee, he told WHYY that he’s uniquely well-connected on the ground in his city, Pennsylvania’s biggest Democratic stronghold.

He’s from the same area as Malcolm Kenyatta, he noted, calling his potential opponent “a great guy,” but adding, “When you talk to people in North Philadelphia about us, I don’t think there’s much debate.”

Like much of the Democratic field, Street is progressive. He’s cited his key issues as being addressing gun violence, investing in education and career and technical training, and legalizing recreational marijuana.

Less established candidates:

In most high-profile races, the candidate field isn’t just limited to already-established politicians with greater access to fundraising and campaign resources, there are also dark horse candidates trying to become formidable players.

The below Democratic candidates are, for now, in the long-shot group. We’ll track their campaigns as the election gets closer, and move them out of this category if they gain traction.

Eric Orts

A professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business for 30 years, Orts is running a campaign explicitly focused on climate change.

Orts, 61, is warning about the dangers of incremental action on climate — calling President Joe Biden to commit to much more radical changes.

“For far too long, politicians have sat on their heels and let the worst environmental and economic crisis of our era spiral out of control,” Orts said in his campaign announcement. “We have the tools, technology and people to solve the climate emergency — what’s lacking are the leaders who are willing to see it through.”

Kevin Baumlin

A Philly ER doctor, Baumlin, 56, says he felt a “call to action” during the coronavirus pandemic, and is running in order to sharpen the Senate’s focus on giving all patients equal access to care.

He told WHYY that while he’s never dabbled in politics before, he thinks that “when you work in a large, complex bureaucracy and you solve problems, that’s very transferable to how politicians and leaders work.”

Alexandria Khalil

Khalil, who is involved in Montgomery County politics, says she’s running on one of the furthest left platforms in the race: she supports Medicare for All, paid family and medical leave, legal marijuana legalization, and wants to put more money into public education and environmental initiatives.

She currently works as an IT specialist.

Republican candidates:

Jeff Bartos, 48

Jeff Bartos (Campaign site)

Current occupation: Real estate developer
Political history: 2018 lieutenant governor candidate, longtime GOP fundraiser
Hometown: Lower Merion

Bartos didn’t formally enter electoral politics until 2018, when he joined former state Senator Scott Wagner’s 2018 gubernatorial bid, but he’s no stranger to it.

A longtime fixture in the Pennsylvania real estate scene — former jobs include a stint as a Toll Brothers division president — Bartos has a long history as a GOP committeeperson and fundraiser. After his bid for lieutenant governor, during which he came off as generally affable and pragmatic beside the bombastic Wagner, Bartos was named chair of the state Republican Party’s finance committee.

Thus far, Bartos has attempted to split the difference between appealing to the wing of his party eager to still ally itself with Donald Trump, and the more moderate wing attempting to distance itself from the former president.

In a video formally announcing his campaign, Bartos centered his appreciation for small businesses and talked about the nonprofit he co-founded in the midst of the pandemic, the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund, which raises money to extend forgivable grants to businesses. But he also threw a bone to the former president, noting that he thinks “Trump represented someone listening to millions of Pennsylvanians who felt like no one was fighting for them.”

Bartos is not, however, Trump’s chosen candidate. The endorsement went to Sean Parnell, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2020 with Trump’s blessing. Much of Bartos’s recent campaign missives have been attacks on Parnell, highlighting now-expunged protection from abuse orders (PFAs) Parnell’s wife sought against him in 2017 and 2018.

Sean Parnell, 39

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: Sean Parnell speaks ahead of a campaign rally with President Donald Trump Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 in Moon Township, Pa.

Current occupation: Author, Fox News contributor
Political history: Ran unsuccessfully for Congress (PA-17) in 2020
Hometown: Ohio Township

Parnell is the candidate in the GOP field who has managed to ally himself most closely with Trump and his voter base.

A decorated former Army Ranger, who earned a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for valor while serving in Afghanistan, Parnell has been best-known in recent years for his frequent, consistently Trump-friendly commentary on Fox News. That reputation grew as he launched his 2020 campaign for Congress in one of Pennsylvania’s purplest districts, where he lost narrowly to moderate Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb.

Parnell’s loss didn’t cool Trump’s support. He got a major boost when the former president endorsed him early this September, claiming baselessly that Parnell “got robbed in his congressional run in the Crime of the Century — the 2020 Presidential Election Scam.” It’s a claim Parnell has also echoed, albeit less explicitly, in calling for a “forensic audit” of the 2020 election in Pa.

Parnell and competitor Jeff Bartos have repeatedly traded barbs over the PFAs Parnell’s wife sought in the years before his congressional bid. Bartos said they make Parnell “unelectable,” while Parnell said Bartos’s statements have been “provably false” and a scheme to score political points.

Parnell’s campaign told City and State PA that the PFAs were indeed issued, but Parnell’s wife later withdrew one, and a judge dismissed the second.

Kathy Barnette, 49

Kathy Barnette (Campaign site)

Current occupation: Political commentator
Political history: Ran unsuccessfully for Congress (PA-04) in 2020
Hometown: Huntingdon Valley

Barnette, a veteran of the U.S. Army reserves who worked in finance before entering politics, is best-known for her crusade to find evidence of fraud in the 2020 election.

After losing badly — and unsurprisingly — to incumbent Democrat Madeleine Dean in a congressional race in deeply blue Montgomery County, Barnette became convinced something had been amiss in the race, and in the election at large, and coordinated with several prominent election fraud evangelists in her efforts to prove those theories.

There’s no evidence of any widespread or significant fraud in the 2020 election. But Barnette’s post-2020 activities have made her prominent in right-wing, Trump-sympathetic circles, and she has become a frequent commentator on far-right shows.

She has also become a fairly formidable fundraiser. As of candidates’ last filing deadline, at the end of June, Barnette had more than $476,000 on hand, third to Bartos and Parnell in the GOP field. Her total receipts have been even greater than Parnell’s.

Carla Sands, 60

Carla Sands (Campaign site)

Current occupation: CEO of investment firm Vintage Capital
Political history: Ambassador to Denmark under Trump, served on Trump’s Economic Advisory Council
Hometown: Camp Hill, though she very recently lived in Los Angeles

Sands put two things front and center in a video announcing her candidacy: her “Christian values and servant’s heart,” and her work and personal relationship with Trump. Her message to Pennsylvania voters is that “our home” — she moved back recently, after selling her Bel-Air, Los Angeles, house for $19.5 million in 2019 — is “overtaxed and overregulated,” and burdened with dwindling jobs, failing schools, and rising crime.

Sands worked as a chiropractor in Pennsylvania, before relocating to California with her late husband. After his death in 2015, she took over his investment company. She supported the former president in 2016 and was a key Trump fundraiser in California, and her support eventually turned into a spot on his Economic Advisory Council, and then an ambassadorship.

She’s expected to bring her own substantial financial resources to the race, though hadn’t yet reported campaign finance data as of candidates’ last filing deadline.

Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at

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