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Pennsylvania Senate race emerges as a test of progressive firepower in the post-Trump era

BRADDOCK, Pa. – Nineteen months before a high-stakes Pennsylvania Senate election, the former mayor of this economically ravaged small town is claiming front-runner status in a race that is emerging as a new test of progressive muscle.

14-year-old former mayor Lt. Gov. John Fetterman on Thursday revealed he raised a staggering $ 3.9 million in the first quarter from more than 90,000 people, what his campaign called evidence that he is the “clear Democratic leader” for the 2022 Senate competition.

A day earlier, his rival Malcolm Kenyatta, 30, a representative of the State of Philadelphia who is pursuing a revolutionary candidacy to become the first black, openly gay and millennial senator, endorsed Chardaé Jones, who was chosen by the board. to replace Fetterman.

The early skirmishes between the two candidates are sowing the seeds for what could be a long and difficult campaign to replace retired Republican Senator Pat Toomey in this quintessential swing state. It’s also a test of whether progressives, who have been successful in recent years in the deep blue quarters of the House, can extend that formula to competitive races in the Senate after helping defeat former President Donald Trump.

Fetterman and Kenyatta, the top two contenders so far, are both running to spend $ 15 minimum wage and Medicare For All, mitigate climate change and limit corporate influence in politics. And both want to end filibuster to do so. Yet even as they align with the goals of the movement, both resist the label “progressive,” cautious not to be defined by caricatures of the term by conservatives, and with an eye on the general election though. they come this far.

“I don’t know if I consider myself a progressive,” Fetterman said in an extensive interview at his home here on a snowy day, insisting that his vision of higher wages, of caring for Health a law and gun control is popular with voters from all parties. “These things are what everyone wants. I don’t think it’s radical.

Kenyatta had a similar response. “These are presented as follows: ‘It’s progressive’. But that’s what the vast majority of the American people support, ”he said in an interview shortly after President Joe Biden’s event in Pittsburgh on Wednesday.

So far, the progressive wing has been one step ahead of the moderates, but they seem to be dividing: Fetterman has asked the Data For Progress company to conduct polls, while Kenyatta has secured the endorsement of the Working Families Party. Others, like Justice Democrats, the group that recruited Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run for Congress, are stepping away from the race for now.

Pennsylvania Senate race emerges as a test of progressive firepower in the post-Trump era

An important factor in this primary is the candidates who have not yet decided. Some strategists say the party needs a more middle-aged figure to take the seat: U.S. Representatives Conor Lamb, Madeleine Dean and Chrissy Houlahan have all been released.

Some of them are waiting to see if their districts will be cut or eliminated in the redistribution cycle, when Pennsylvania is expected to lose a seat in Congress.

“In 2022, we could answer a very important question in Pennsylvania, which could have far-reaching implications for the Progressive movement and the Democratic Party,” said a Democratic member who was granted anonymity because their boss had them. ordered not to weigh on the race. “Namely: Do Democrats need a candidate like Bob Casey to win a federal race in Pennsylvania, or can we get to name a candidate who believes in what the grassroots believe and look like at the grassroots?”

Fetterman hailed the House outlook as “formidable Democrats” and invited one of them to intervene: “The more votes in this race, the better.” The stakes are high, as voters in this state could decide which party controls the Senate in two years.

Fetterman and Kenyatta challenge the prototype of the moderate Democrats who have typically won Senate nominations in Keystone state for decades. Republicans, who could face a messy primary, are already struggling to portray them as too extreme.

“Campaigns are marathons, but Democratic candidates in Pennsylvania are already sprinting as far to the left as they can get,” said Chris Hartline, a spokesperson for the GOP Senate campaign arm.

The GOP realm is at a more nascent stage, with the 2018 Lt. candidate on the run, and others like former Rep Ryan Costello and some Trump-linked candidates weighing in.

Voters here could be forgiven if they struggle to find political distinctions between the two Democrats.

Where they exist, they tend to be subtle. For example, Kenyatta supports calls for Biden to unilaterally write off $ 50,000 in student debt; Fetterman wouldn’t put an “arbitrary” dollar figure on it. Sometimes it’s a matter of emphasis: Both support the legalization of marijuana, but unlike Kenyatta, Fetterman highlights the issue with a leaf of green grass on his campaign t-shirts.

Fetterman said he would be comfortable voting to eliminate the Senate’s 60-vote threshold, doubting a future Republican-led Senate would have the audacity to overturn liberal laws, such as protections for conditions existing, with a simple majority. He also targeted Liberal scarecrow Mitch McConnell, the Republican minority leader in the Senate.

“My thoughts are: if Mitch McConnell is for, I’m against,” Fetterman said with a chuckle. “If Mitch McConnell went out for cute puppies and lazy Sundays, I would immediately be wary of cute puppies and lazy Sundays.

Pennsylvania State Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, sings the national anthem on January 1, 2019 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.Jacqueline Larma / AP

But unlike some fellow Democrats, Fetterman vowed he would make an effort to work with Republicans even if they voted to block the electoral count on January 6, citing Sanders working with Sen. Josh Hawley, R- as an example. Mo., On direct cash payments last year.

“I will work with anyone who wants to do what it takes for this country. And I don’t go into any situation with a chip on my shoulder, ”Fetterman said, adding that it would be“ silly ”to point out colleagues. “I’m not looking for a fight, but I’m not afraid of it either.

Kenyatta said he had experienced the poverty he wanted to alleviate. Raised by his mother after his parents divorced early in his life, he said they traveled frequently and went through periods without health insurance, when she was rationing his insulin.

“My message is that we need to have genuine leadership right now. We need leaders who understand what is broken because they overcame the breakage, because they went through it, because they lifted, ”Kenyatta said. “And if you look at the Senate right now, ask yourself: Do you want a real worker in this body?”

Fetterman and Kenyatta had nothing but praise for Biden, who carried Pennsylvania last fall.

The two men will face their share of political struggles.

Kenyatta has little name recognition outside of Philadelphia and may struggle to get it quickly if the race is crowded. He did not reveal his fundraising numbers for the first quarter. Solidifying the black vote would make it formidable, but it is far from achieving it. Some Democrats are privately wondering whether a state with a habit of picking white men for a statewide post would elect a gay black man.

Fetterman is from Allegheny County in the west, and it’s unclear whether his national brand will lead enough in the Philadelphia area, where most of the Democratic vote will come from. He doesn’t seem to escape questions about his appearance either – at 6-foot-8, bearded and tattooed on his arms, Fetterman doesn’t look like the average Senator.

The lieutenant governor recently addressed an incident in 2013 in which he brandished a gun to stop a black jogger while he was with his young son and heard an “overwhelming explosion of gunfire” – and saw a man, who he said was dressed entirely in black. and a face mask, and thought he was involved.

Asked about it on Thursday, Fetterman insisted that race played no part in his decisions at the time.

“Absolutely, at no point was I even aware of the individual’s race,” he said. “I talked about it a lot. And it’s all over there, and the voters and the people are going to be able to make up their own minds about it. But I have an impeccable record of 26 years of working to promote the values ​​and fundamental issues of these marginalized communities and individuals.

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