Temperature Check: Pennsylvania

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Perhaps no slate of elections will be as closely watched in 2022 as the ones in Pennsylvania. With a Senate seat and the governor’s mansion both up for grabs and with just over a month to go until the state’s primary elections, Split Ticket takes a look at the Keystone State’s primaries for both races.

With the US Senate delicately balanced at 50/50, the race for the seat currently held by retiring Republican incumbent Pat Toomey has received incredible amounts of attention on both sides. On the Democratic side, although several candidates declared for this race, including state senator Sharif Street and physician Val Arkoosh, the majority of the early talk around the Democratic Senate primary revolved around the head-to-head matchup between Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman and Representative Conor Lamb (PA-17), with an eye also kept on the upstart campaign of state representative Malcolm Kenyatta.

As the state’s sitting lieutenant governor, Fetterman entered the primary with high levels of name recognition, a strong polling advantage, and a strong financial warchest that dwarfed the combined cash reserves of all his other competitors. Lamb, meanwhile, was commonly seen as the pick of the Democratic establishment, racking up endorsements from forty elected officials and nineteen different labor unions and coming within a dozen votes of securing the state party’s endorsement. And Kenyatta, a progressive who initially planned to run for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Fetterman before they both pivoted to competing Senate candidacies, received a sizable amount of media attention and collected several notable endorsements from local and national figures.

At this stage, however, the nomination appears to be Fetterman’s to lose, with the lieutenant governor boasting a substantial cash advantage and leading in every available poll of the race by around 20 percentage points. Despite both Kenyatta and Lamb picking up almost every available endorsement between them from every major player in Pennsylvania politics, Fetterman’s polling lead has remained virtually unchanged through this entire cycle.

It should be noted that there are still an exceptionally high number of undecided voters in this race; recent polling indicates that roughly a third of the voters in this race have yet to make up their mind. This number will almost certainly narrow as the primary nears, and it is the reason that we do not rate this primary as Safe Fetterman just yet. However, given the sheer size of Fetterman’s polling advantage and its relative stability up until this point, an upset would likely entail undecided voters breaking decisively for one of Lamb or Kenyatta.

Movement like this has been observed in Democratic primaries before, and in both 2010 and 2016, the frontrunner rapidly saw their momentum evaporate during the final primary stretch (Specter in 2010, Sestak in 2016). The possibility of this should not be discounted, as late movement can rapidly change the available picture. But if this were to happen, it would be at odds with the fundamentals in this race; Kenyatta has low name ID across the state and has virtually no money left in the bank to help drive it up, while Lamb still trails Fetterman in both recognition and fundraising by a decent margin, even when including outside PAC support.

Lamb, whose statewide name ID sits at a shade above fifty percent, would need to both drive up his name recognition and hope that attacks on Fetterman actually land, as the frontrunner still has a very positive image among the Democratic primary electorate and is recognized by over seventy percent of the primary electorate. Up to this point, however, attempts to go negative on Fetterman, either on ideology or past scandals, have not greatly moved the needle and have actually possibly backfired, with a negative ad against Fetterman pulled from a TV station for being misleading. For this reason, we rate the primary as Likely Fetterman. A Lamb win is possible, but remains unlikely, and all signs point to the sitting lieutenant governor exiting the primary with the Democratic nomination in hand.

If the Democratic primary is hotly contested, however, the Republican one can only be deemed a bloodbath. For months, surgeon and reality TV star Mehmet Oz and former Bridgewater Associates CEO David McCormick have been collecting endorsements across both the establishment and populist wings of the GOP and have engaged in all-out war on the airwaves. Oz entered the campaign as the frontrunner before seeing the momentum shift to McCormick, and at one point, the picture became so unfavorable that speculation about Oz’s withdrawal from the race and return to television began to build.

In a testament to the volatile nature of primaries, however, Oz’s candidacy received a fresh injection of life with a controversial Donald Trump endorsement. This may have come as a surprise to some, especially because McCormick had been endorsed by several prominent Trump-world figures like Hope Hicks; however, in the wake of the endorsement, the reality TV star has reclaimed a narrow lead in public polling.

With both Oz and McCormick armed with far more cash and more establishment support than any of the other challengers (namely Kathy Barnette, Carla Sands, or Jeff Bartos), the nominee will likely be one of these two in November. We rate the Republican primary as a Tossup at the moment, and our general election rating remains a Tossup as well, but if forced to pick, we would probably say that the Republicans would be more likely than not to emerge with control of this seat in November, based on the national environment.

In the gubernatorial race, Democrats look set to nominate sitting Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who was re-elected in 2020 by an extremely impressive 4.3%, outrunning Joe Biden by over 3% in the process and doing significantly better with working-class voters in the process. Shapiro has raised a breathtaking amount of money, and with $16M in his campaign coffers, he now has a significant fundraising lead over virtually every other possible opponent and appears poised to mount a strong general election campaign.

On the Republican side, the field may best be described as fractured, with Trump-aligned candidates Doug Mastriano and Lou Barletta separated by slim margins in most polls. Mastriano is perhaps the most controversial nominee, with his participation in the January 6th Capitol riots, his former praise of QAnon, and his defense of Trump’s debunked claims of election fraud in Pennsylvania all serving as significant flashpoints of controversy that strategists fear could dog him in a general election. However, he maintains a significant fundraising edge over Barletta, who was the unsuccessful GOP nominee in the state’s 2018 senatorial election, and may be considered the frontrunner at the moment, if by the slimmest of margins.

Most of the rest of the GOP field consists of candidates from the establishment wing of the GOP, such as Bill McSwain, Dave White, and Jake Corman. But none of these candidates have managed to gain significant levels of support just yet; McSwain is currently the polling leader among this wing, but even he trails Mastriano and Barletta by high single-digits. With Trump vocally attacking McSwain and Corman reversing track on dropping out, the odds of an establishment candidate emerging from this primary are probably lower than they would be in the senatorial primary. 

We rate the GOP gubernatorial primary as a Tossup, but if we had to guess, one of Mastriano or Barletta would be the nominee come November, based on the evidence available to us at the moment. Our general election rating remains at a Tossup, but we believe that the race would be Lean Democratic with Mastriano as the Republican nominee and a tossup with Barletta. Whatever the matchups in either race, however, one thing is clear: in this cycle, Pennsylvania may have the single most hotly contested slate in the nation.

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