You may have heard that Pennsylvanians vote on Tuesday to decide which candidates will face off in November to fill their state's open senate seat and become its next governor. What you may not know is that these races have been a circus — and that the cast of characters on each side give us a revealing glimpse of everything that's wrong with American politics in 2022.
On the Republican side, the leading candidates in both races run the gamut of a party still in the throes of a transformation that began around 2008 and exploded in intensity with former President Donald Trump's successful populist takeover of the GOP in 2016.
In the senate race, a bland, carpetbagging TV star with dual citizenship in Turkey (Mehmet Oz — or Dr. Oz, as he's popularly known) has a narrow lead of 2.6 points. Nipping at his heels is Kathy Barnette, a right-wing Black woman who has a murky background, claims to have been conceived in rape (giving her staunch anti-abortion stance considerable weight), buys into a range of right-wing conspiracy theories, and apparently marched to Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, 2021 next to members of the neo-fascist Proud Boys.
Then, nearly four points behind Barnette, there is David McCormick, a wealthy hedge fund CEO who served in the administration of former President George W. Bush but has been working hard (with marginal success) to portray himself as a latter-day Trumpian Republican. Oh, and McCormick has also been dogged by accusations of carpetbagging, since he moved to Pennsylvania and sold his six bedroom/six bathroom house in Connecticut within the past year.
In the race for governor, it's the far-right conspiracist (retired U.S. Army colonel and PA state senator Doug Mastriano) who holds a solid lead (up by 13.5 points at 32 percent). Behind him, clustered within 7.5 points of each other, are three candidates competing for the "normal Republican" slot: Rep. Lou Barletta from central Pennsylvania; former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania Bill McSwain; and David White, a wealthy businessman from the Philadelphia suburbs.
Interestingly, though the popularity of Mastriano and Barnette points toward how much Trump has transformed the GOP, Trump himself has only endorsed one of them — giving the nod to Mastriano in the race for governor just this past Saturday, a mere three days before polling stations open and quite a long time after the start of early voting. In the senate race, Trump endorsed Oz over a month ago, leaving McCormick along with the far more unhinged Barnette out in the cold.
Apparently the only thing that can beat out lunacy and personal fealty in the contest for Trump's affection is a proven capacity to draw a sizable television audience.
If current polls hold, Trump will be able to take credit for having the magic touch — though Mastriano was already on the road to victory without the endorsement, and though he'll quite likely to lose the general-election contest to Josh Shapiro, Pennsylvania's popular attorney general, who has run unopposed in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
An entirely different drama is unfolding on the Democratic side of the senate race. There Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman leads Rep. Conor Lamb by 31 points. For most of the race, the press has treated the contest as a competition between the progressive (Fetterman) and moderate (Lamb) wings of the party — describing Fetterman's strong polling as evidence that the Democratic electorate is energized to vote for a guy who endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016 and proudly champions issues associated with the left wing of the culture war.
Fetterman's lead certainly does vindicate a narrative about the ascendance of progressivism in the party, but not quite in the way analysts have framed it. While it's true that Lamb won his ideologically middle-of-the-road western Pennsylvania district in 2018 by staking out some moderate positions, that hasn't been the case with his senate campaign. From abortion and trans rights to crime and the minimum wage, Lamb and Fetterman are close to indistinguishable. On paper, they both look like progressives, almost interchangeably so.
Where they differ is in their political personas. Fetterman is 6'8", bald, sports a goatee, wears hoodies and shorts on the campaign trail, and talks like a bro. Lamb, meanwhile, looks and sounds like he's playing a bit part on The West Wing as a boyish, earnest and awkward candidate, invariably wearing a jacket and tie, who can do a decent job delivering a stump speech but easily falls into deer-in-the-headlights mode when confronting a difficult or hostile question from a constituent.
Whereas Fetterman seems like a guy you'd like to get a beer with, Lamb is someone who'd likely be more comfortable heading back to the hotel to discuss the next day's schedule with his staff.
And that's the main thing that separates the candidates: not policy differences, but style. Fetterman is running as an average guy whose look and dress screams "populism," whereas Lamb is a standard-issue politician. If Fetterman wins, that will tell us less about the electoral salience of progressive ideas than it will about the effectiveness of Democrats portraying themselves as "one of the guys" while supporting the same policies as the rest of the party.
But will Fetterman win? On Sunday the candidate released a statement announcing that he'd suffered a stroke on Friday. Then, on Monday, his campaign followed up by declaring he would not be attending the campaign party Tuesday evening because he's still recovering in the hospital. If he weren't leading by more than 30 points, or if the stroke had happened several weeks earlier, before early voting had gotten underway, this could have sent the Fetterman campaign into a tailspin and given Lamb a potentially decisive big break. But as it is, the frontrunner is overwhelmingly likely to prevail on Tuesday, setting Fetterman up for a tough general election race against Oz or McCormick — or a much easier contest against Barnette.
Where does that leave me — a former conservative sworn off the GOP who would prefer to vote for a genuinely moderate Democrat? Nowhere, apparently. The press tells me Lamb should be my guy, but he's miles behind Fetterman and every bit as progressive (minus the support for Sanders six years ago). So I'm left with Fetterman and Shapiro as the only alternatives to getting a senator and governor working to blend elements of Bush and Trump or eager to surpass the 45th president in spreading lies and delusional conspiracies throughout the political system.
Sometimes the least-bad option really is the best thing going.