It hasn’t been a secret that for Pennsylvania Democrats, their geographical power bastion has been shifting. A party that used to be controlled by the working class whites out west is now being controlled by wealthier, white collar voters in the east. The trends, the changes in voter registration, and primaries themselves show this clearly.
Just take a look at the Auditor General primary in 2020. The sitting Allegheny County Controller was beaten handily by a progressive former Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia. That wouldn’t have happened even five years ago. But now it’s how Democratic primaries in the state work – or at least, so we thought. Which is why the recent decisions of Congresswomen Madeline Dean and Chrissy Houlahan to pass on the upcoming Senate race seems so shocking. Now, we have two candidates from the west as clear favorites to take the nomination instead.
Lamb and Fetterman: Two Westerners with Totally Different Styles of Politics.
The two candidates I am talking about are of course, John Fetterman and Conor Lamb. Fetterman currently serves as the states Lieutenant Governor, while Lamb serves the 17th district as it’s congressman. While both come from Allegheny County, both have very different styles of politics. And that might be understating it.
If you look at Conor Lamb, you would almost think he came out of a lab meant to create electable looking politicians. He’s admittedly handsome, has a military background as a prosecutor for the Marines, and has a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Did I mention his grandfather was a former majority leader of the state senate and his uncle is the aforementioned Allegheny County Controller? Growing up in and currently residing in Mount Lebanon, a Pittsburgh suburb, Lamb is the definition of Pennsylvania normal. He’s not controversial, leans on the moderate side of the aisle, and has the profile to win statewide. He’s be tapped for a higher office run since he won that stunning special election early in 2018.
John Fetterman on the other hand, is the complete opposite. He doesn’t look like a politician, standing at a towering 6’9″ and rarely ever wearing a suit. He grew up middle class and played football for four years at Albright College. A friend’s death in a car accident caused him to decide to join with AmeriCorps, which led him to the small city of Braddock. There, Fetterman eventually became Mayor, using his big personality to promote the town and his progressive politics. That eventually led to a 2016 Senate run where he overperformed expectations. That led to a 2018 run for Lieutenant Governor, where Fetterman won the right to sit on a ticket with popular Governor Tom Wolf. His time in that position has led to many disagreements with the GOP controlled state legislature and many MSNBC appearances. He is the antithesis of the normal Pennsylvania establishment.
The West’s Last Hurrah
There was a time where this wasn’t unusual to have the major candidates all being from the western part of the state. As I mentioned earlier, the bastion of Democratic voters in the state of Pennsylvania used to be out west, along with a blue hole in Philadelphia. But today, that’s just not the case. Most of the state party’s bench, even most of the Democratic Party representation in the state, comes from the southeastern part. And yet in what is arguably a matchup between the western part of the state’s last two viable candidates, we have this primary.
And this race is unquestionably a risk for both candidates as well. With the acknowledgement that Lamb has not officially announced a Senate run yet, this is the pathway for both men. For Fetterman, failure here means he would be out of government. No more time as Lieutenant Governor, no more mayor’s spot, no more podium to extoll his values from. That could mean his time in politics is done. For Lamb, officially jumping in could be sign that his congressional seat will get redder. Rumors are abounding in the state that Mount Lebanon will be drawn into the Pittsburgh-based district of Mike Doyle. Even though it would be easy for Lamb to carpetbag, the new seat would be much redder without Mount Lebanon.
After these two candidates, there’s not much of a bench left out west for statewide races. If Lamb’s out and Democrats fail to hold his congressional seat, there’s really no one left currently who could be viable statewide. They are either not in government or too progressive. Making this senate primary potentially the last time we see a democrat nominated from the western part of the state for a while.
Can Anyone from the East Break Through?
With all the congresswomen out from southeastern Pennsylvania out, that doesn’t mean there’s no one from the eastern portion of the state. The two most high profile candidates are State Representative Malcom Kenyatta and Val Arkoosh, a Montgomery County commissioner. State Senator Sharif Street has also formed an exploratory committee.
I’ve already written a piece about Kenyatta’s entry into the race, which you can read here, so I’m going to focus on Arkoosh instead. Arkoosh, as the only woman in the race, is immediately viable. She at least has a clearer path then Kenyatta, who’s narrow path would become even narrower if Street officially joins the race. Arkoosh, who comes from vote rich Montgomery, at least has a foothold in the crucial Philadelphia suburbs. Being the only woman brings perks as well. The recent endorsement from EMILY’s List, one of the biggest Democratic advocacy groups, is one of them. If she can get more establishment support in the area, Arkoosh might suddenly become a player in this race.
However, there are barriers to her ability to break through as well. The biggest one might be her position and name recognition. Pennsylvania has a history of not electing people who haven’t at least served in congress, or in some type of state executive or cabinet position. The last senator who was popularly elected without having served in one of those roles was Democrat Joseph Guffrey. He was last elected in 1940. Arkoosh also has low name recognition because of her position. Outside of Montgomery and maybe parts of Chester and Delaware, no one really knows who she is. And that means she is going to need money. Which she so far, doesn’t have a lot of. Arkoosh can be competitive in this race, but she’ll need to jump multiple hurdles to do so.
Really, we can’t say much about this race until Lamb officially gets in. If or once he does, then we can make some assumptions. However, this is certainly shaping up to be the most competitive Democratic primary for a competitive Senate seat in 2022. And how this race shapes up may be the crucial race that decides which way the Senate falls.