Alexander Wolfe | Staff Columnist
Senator Pat Toomey (R-PA) shocked Pennsylvania Democrats this week when he announced he would be retiring in 2022. To his Republican colleagues and staff, this was likely no surprise as Toomey is a closeted, run-of-the-mill conservative politician who made his name running as someone focused on lowering taxes for American families who, like any mainstream politician, is active in his party on the national and state levels.
The seat is certainly leaving PA Democrats salivating at the thought of having two Democratic senators and as a rare seat with a legitimate chance to swing the Senate for at least six years.
Democrats have reason to be optimistic. Joe Biden maintains a 4-6 point lead over Donald Trump in Pennsylvania, and in 2018, redistricted congressional districts empowered Democratic capture of two additional House seats. So with two years to prepare, assuming we survive the upcoming election, Democrats will be stealthily preparing to reclaim the seat.
The Pennsylvania Democratic party is home to many politicians with a growing national profile and the popularity to offer a strong candidacy for the vacancy. Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman, the former Mayor of Braddock, has thus far evaded any significant loss of popularity from his association with Governor Tom Wolf, and Fetterman’s populist, approachable persona is likely to be appealing to Trump voters who carried the state for the President in 2016.
At the same time, his progressive positions are likely to earn him the blessing of the Democratic party’s left-wing. Conor Lamb’s historic upset in 2017 and high profile status as a blue-dog moderate Democrat in Congress makes him a clear candidate as well.
Moderate on policy, very much walking in the line of Senator Bob Casey (D-PA), Representative Lamb’s statewide name recognition could potentially catapult him into the state Democratic party’s crosshairs as a challenger to the Toomey seat.
Other high profile Pennsylvania Democrats may consider a run, although recent senate races have often featured political outsiders. Attorney General Josh Shapiro is arguably the state’s most popular political figure, although insiders say he may be a candidate for Attorney General in a Joe Biden administration.
The conundrum facing state Republicans is much different. Trump’s Republican party finds itself at odds with politicians like Senator Toomey, despite their similarities on policy. Trump has called Toomey a RINO (Republican in Name Only) in the past, despite the fact that in his nine years as Pennsylvania’s junior senator, he has only voted against his party 7.1% of the time, according to the Represent Project by ProPublica.
Few Pennsylvania Republicans have found solace in the national Republican party, save a select few who lack political experience in Pennsylvania pwolitics. Sean Parnell, the candidate currently challenging Conor Lamb’s seat in the 17th district, spoke at the Republican National Convention, and regularly appears on Fox News to promote his books and as a supporter of President Trump.
Before his retirement in 2020, Mike Turzai, the former long-time speaker of the House was a strong Republican power player, although his traditional Republican stance was at-odds with some Trump voters.
Many Republicans running for Congress this election cycle are young, charismatic and outspoken in their support of President Trump. These candidates may be a new generation of Pennsylvania Republicans, although few have been able to break through into the national consciousness.
The Pennsylvania Republican party has been blindsided by Trump. I would argue that Trump’s 2016 victory in Pennsylvania came with only lip service from the state party, despite the state’s importance as a swing state in the electoral college.
In addition to the governorship, key mayors are Democrats, prohibiting Republicans from making waves in state politics as anything other than upstart minority challengers. Many Republican challengers are activists as much as they are candidates, similar to progressive democrats running against their moderate counterparts or against long-time Republican officeholders.
Most importantly, this is all speculation. It’s entirely plausible that the Republican party rises like a phoenix from the ashes of Trump and reclaims the Pennsylvania governorship in 2021. A Republican-controlled Pennsylvania changes the field for a 2022 senate race, and Democratic politicians may fall out of relevance.
Today’s Republican party is as volatile a political party as has been seen in American history, so in all honesty, there’s no telling what will happen in the foreseeable future.
State Republicans need to plan now to successfully anoint Senator Toomey’s successor, because the Senate is just as politically impactful as the Presidency.