Democratic hopes are on a knife-edge in the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania, where both parties hold their primaries Tuesday.
On one hand, Democrats believe Republican voters could do them an unintentional favor in whomever they choose as their nominee.
The top tier of the GOP field is comprised of TV personality Mehmet Oz, conservative commentator Kathy Barnette and businessman David McCormick — all of whom Democrats believe have potentially fatal flaws.
On the other hand, the shock has not yet faded in Democratic circles that the clear front-runner in their Senate primary, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, suffered a stroke on Friday at the age of 52.
Fetterman says he is on the road to recovery and that he did not “suffer any cognitive damage.” But the development, so close to the primary, has jangled Democratic nerves.
“A stroke over the weekend is not good, but we don’t know how bad it was except for him saying he will be up and about,” said Democratic strategist Jerry Austin.
Austin said the 6’8” Fetterman, with his shaved head and penchant for shorts and hoodies over suits and ties, “is a strong candidate. He may be our ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ but in a more positive sense in Pennsylvania than [GOP Senate nominee] J.D. Vance in Ohio.”
Fetterman has a large polling lead over U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta in the Democratic primary.
Fetterman’s stroke was the latest dramatic development in one of the most intriguing races in the country.
Pennsylvania gives the Democrats a rare chance to pick up a Senate seat at a time when the upper chamber is split 50-50. The seat is currently held by Sen. Pat Toomey (R), who is retiring.
Democrats can’t deny they face a very challenging environment nationwide.
President Biden’s approval ratings are mediocre at best, inflation has soared to its highest levels in four decades and, historically, the party that holds the White House struggles in the first midterms after a presidential election.
Yet Democrats are buoyed when they look at the GOP field in the Keystone State.
“I am not sure they put up their A-list for this,” said Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based Democratic consultant, with a laugh.
But Nevins also warned — citing former President Trump as an example — that there are dangers in underestimating an opponent “who you think is the person you want.”
Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic strategist, was even more bullish on his party’s chances.
“Each of them has some real flaws, so we are having arguments over which one is the weakest,” Trippi said of the GOP field. “But it’s not an argument of ‘If this one wins, it would be a big problem for us.’ It’s more of an argument over who is more vulnerable than the others.”
Trippi said he himself is leaning toward Barnette as the weakest candidate for Democrats to face.
Barnette has surged in the last couple of weeks before primary day, despite being vastly outspent by Oz and McCormick.
Her new prominence has brought scrutiny, uncovering many problematic comments in her past.
Barnette has alleged that gay men are “not normal,” falsely stated that former President Obama is Muslim and asserted that pedophilia is a “cornerstone” of Islam.
Her primary opponents have seized on the idea that Barnette could be a disaster in a general election. A super PAC supporting Oz is airing an ad blasting her, McCormick has noted her heavy defeat in a 2020 House race and Trump — who has endorsed Oz — has also said she is not electable.
Barnette’s rise appears to be driven by her appeal to GOP base voters as the most authentic and compelling representative of MAGA-style populism. Oz has a history of appearing to advocate less conservative positions than he now claims to hold, while McCormick’s critics charge that he lacks charisma.
A new Emerson College poll on Monday underlined that the GOP primary is a three-way jump ball. The poll had just 6 percentage points separating Oz, Barnette and McCormick, who were on 32 percent, 27 percent and 26 percent, respectively.
The fierce nature of the primary, meanwhile, is gladdening Democratic hearts — even as party strategists know there are no easy general election wins amid such a challenging political landscape.
The leading Republican candidates “have spent an enormous amount of money chewing each other up,” said Democratic strategist Mark Longabaugh. “I think anytime you see a party do that, it is helpful. But I still think it is going to be a tough environment. It is a tough and competitive state.”
Longabaugh made no attempt to minimize the problems Democrats face.
“Inflation and the rocky economy is number one,” he said. “Obviously, the generic polling numbers do not look great. The president’s job approval does not look great. So by some basic, fundamental measures, it looks to be a very tough case.”
Salvation for Democrats — or at least avoidance of a worst-case scenario — could come from weak GOP candidates.
That’s why party strategists are so eagerly waiting for Tuesday’s results from the other side of the partisan divide.
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.