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The next big existential fight for Democrats? Pennsylvania

Rep. Conor Lamb’s Senate candidacy has set the battle lines in another primary that will test the moderate establishment’s might against the progressive left’s resolve.
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COUDERSPORT, Pa. — Potter County in north central Pennsylvania bills itself as “God’s Country” — a nickname that reflects the rural landscape and splendid stargazing views, but also hints at its conservative politics.

Former President Donald Trump won here twice with nearly 80 percent of the vote, making it one of the most reliably Republican areas in the state. And inside a tiny storefront gallery on Main Street that serves as a safe space and the headquarters for the local Democratic Party hangs a sign: “VOTE DEMOCRAT. No One Will Know.”

That’s precisely the sort of quiet, if not silent, support Rep. Conor Lamb hoped to begin cultivating when he visited this month, on his second day as a Senate candidate. Lamb, a Democrat from the Pittsburgh area, frontloaded his kickoff tour with purple and red counties that he believes can carry him over progressives in the primary and to victory in the general election next year.

“Thank you for this incredible welcome for me and the whole team that’s traveled with me here today,” Lamb, with his political ad-makers in tow, told three dozen local residents sipping on beer and wine in the middle of a Saturday afternoon. “We have this camera and microphone set up in part because I want people to see what you guys are doing here. I want to show them that that’s part of what it means to be a Democrat in Pennsylvania — that we go everywhere ... that we are not giving up, especially in places like Potter County.”

What it means to be a Democrat in Pennsylvania is, really, the question of next year’s Senate primary. The decision by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey not seek re-election handed Democrats perhaps their best opportunity to preserve or expand a fragile 50-50 majority in the chamber, opening a Republican-held seat in a state President Joe Biden won narrowly in 2020.

Progressives already have responded to the candidacies of Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, known for his working-class wardrobe and crusade to legalize weed, and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who would be the state’s first Black and first openly gay senator. Lamb’s declaration last week, which came days after Biden allies beat a Bernie Sanders acolyte in a special House primary in neighboring Ohio, plunged the race into familiar, existential territory.

The campaign — steeped in reverence to Biden and his American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package that Lamb describes as historically progressive — sets up another clash between the moderate establishment and the left.

“I’m open to hearing what they all say,” Linda Klingaman, chair of the Potter County Democrats, said before introducing Lamb here. She added that, though she believes a moderate nominee would be “much more capable” of attracting GOP voters, Democrats also must weigh base issues such as women’s health and the environment.

Geography could be another factor in the primary. Fetterman and Lamb are both from western Pennsylvania, while Kenyatta and state Sen. Sharif Street, who has formed an exploratory committee, are from Philadelphia.

A fifth candidate, Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, is a proven vote-getter in the important Philadelphia suburbs. Backed by Emily’s List, a national group that promotes women who support abortion rights for higher office, she would be Pennsylvania’s first female senator. Like Lamb, she presents herself as a nonideological pragmatist.

“As I talk to voters across Pennsylvania, what I hear from every single one of them is that Pennsylvania needs a problem solver in the United States Senate,” Arkoosh, a physician, said in an interview. “People are looking for somebody who's got the skill and ability to actually work on the things that are keeping them up at night, and that is me.”

Lamb and Fetterman have national profiles — Lamb from his special election win in a GOP district three years ago, Fetterman from his heavy pushback on Trump’s unsubstantiated claims of election fraud and frequent appearances on cable news programs. Fetterman, the only candidate in the race to win a statewide election, has built an early cash advantage. And in a race where independent polling is scarce, Fetterman has brandished an internal poll from May that showed him leading the field, with Lamb in second place.

The Democrats who attended Lamb’s kickoff events tended to view him and Fetterman as the front-runners. Fetterman signaled this, too, in a fundraising email sent the day after Lamb entered the race.

“If you are looking for a candidate that had to ‘evolve’ on core issues like the $15 minimum wage, then don't vote for me,” Fetterman wrote. “If you want a candidate that has outdated views on marijuana, then you and I might have to agree to disagree.”

Fetterman didn’t mention Lamb by name, but the contrasts were apparent. Lamb was initially resistant to the idea of a $15-an-hour minimum wage and last year voted against a bill to decriminalize marijuana nationwide, advocating a more incremental approach. The email also poked at Sen. Joe Manchin, the centrist Democrat from neighboring West Virginia who has helped Lamb raise money and whose powerful swing vote has become a flashpoint for progressives.

“If we’re looking at ‘p’ words for what John is, John is a populist,” said Fetterman spokesperson Joe Calvello, eschewing the progressive label in favor of one that has resonated with working-class voters, including those white working-class voters who supported Trump. “If we’re going to label ourselves, that’s the one that we feel is accurate, because what he’s talking about is popular.”

Lamb encountered a few doubters as he rolled out his campaign. Twice over the first two days he was pressed on the filibuster, a Senate rule that requires 60 votes to advance most legislation. Many progressives want to end it, but moderates such as Manchin remain reluctant. Lamb, who in May announced that he favors eliminating the rule, reiterated that position at his events.

In New Castle, an activist who asked about the filibuster also asked Lamb if he supports Medicare for All. Not in its current legislative form, the congressman replied.

“I think that John Fetterman’s answers would have been yes and yes,” the activist, Lou Hancherick, said afterward.

The Republican primary field already has more than a half-dozen candidates, including Jeff Bartos, a businessman who ran for lieutenant governor on the losing GOP ticket in 2018; Sean Parnell, a Trump ally who narrowly lost to Lamb last year; and Carla Sands, Trump’s former ambassador to Denmark.

Pennsylvania voters have a habit of rewarding candidates who search for middle ground, as evidenced by the three terms the state’s other senator, Bob Casey, has won as a moderate Democrat.The opening days of Lamb’s statewide tour were optimized to flex his own popularity and crossover appeal. More than 40 supporters, including laborers and local leaders, stood behind him when he declared his candidacy outside a Pittsburgh union hall.

From there it was on to New Castle, in Lawrence County, where Trump beat Biden by nearly 30 percentage points last year. He ended the day at the Cochranton Community Fair in Crawford County, where Trump won last year by 37. Calvello countered Lamb’s effort to project strength in these western Pennsylvania areas with data that shows Fetterman has received campaign contributions from 83 percent of the zip codes in that part of the state.

Dressed in a white oxford shirt and dark chinos, Lamb was a curious if unfamiliar presence to many as he wandered between the local Democratic Party tent and the french fries stand. A member of his traveling entourage emphasized Lamb’s “centrist” and “moderate” credentials to puzzled onlookers.

Lamb wrestled with those and other labels in an interview as he left the fairgrounds. His early stump speech has plenty that Republicans won’t like, from Lamb’s blistering rebuke of those who falsely believe the last election was stolen from Trump, to his emphasis on voting rights.

Lamb also characterizes the American Rescue Plan, an economic relief package that distributed another round of direct cash payments and expanded the child tax credit program as “the most progressive piece of legislation by any definition in my lifetime.”

It’s an example, he says, of what centrists led by Biden and those on the left can accomplish when they work together. The legislation received no support from Republicans in the House or Senate, but some congressional Republicans have since promoted elements popular with voters.

“We need a lot more than any litmus test can provide for,” Lamb said. “I really value the contributions of people who call themselves progressives. We need them. They have a lot of moral clarity. They see issues in an important way. But we can’t limit ourselves.”

Lamb carried the message the next day to Erie County, a swing county that narrowly flipped from Trump to Biden in 2020. State Rep. Ryan Bizzarro, who endorsed and introduced Lamb at the event there, counts Fetterman and Kenyatta as friends but sees the congressman as the most electable Democrat.

“At the end of the day, I’m concerned about a general election,” Bizzarro said. “I want a candidate that’s been tested and can win in tough areas. This is not the blue state that everyone thinks it is.”