PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — One candidate promises he won’t be a centrist Democratic senator like Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema. Another proudly declares he’s no socialist, and knocks the liberal “Squad” members who voted against the bipartisan infrastructure deal.
In the high-stakes primary for Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat, a debate is raging over what it means to be a loyal Democrat in the Biden era. How voters answer that question could help determine the new playbook for Democrats running in battleground states.
The frontrunner in the Democratic contest, Pennsylvania’s Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, anchors one end of the ideological pole. He is harshly critical of the role that Manchin and Sinema have played in opposing major parts of President Joe Biden’s social spending bill. At the other end is moderate Rep. Conor Lamb, who has positioned himself against the party’s left wing.
Two other liberal contenders, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta and Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, are also taking shots at Manchin.
The attacks on opposite wings of the Democratic Party demonstrate how differently each candidate is approaching the question of how to capture a seat in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country. With every candidate representing a unique electoral theory of the case, political strategists said the outcome of the nomination contest could reverberate for years to come in swing states like Pennsylvania.
“What it will do is give whoever wins this primary a really big platform to show that their model works,” said Adam Jentleson, who served as the deputy chief-of-staff for former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “At stake here is the potential for someone to at least demonstrate a path forward for Democrats at a pretty difficult time for the party.”
Fetterman, a progressive who endorsed Bernie Sanders in 2016, is a tattooed, six-foot-eight former mayor of a struggling steel town. His supporters argue that he can win back working-class white and rural voters who’ve fled the Democratic Party with his populist message and not-your-typical-politician persona.
Lamb, who won a district that Trump carried by about 20 points, also makes the case that he has the ability to flip white working-class as well as suburban voters. But he cuts a more moderate profile. He personally opposes abortion (though he has voted to support abortion rights) and is a vocal critic of defunding the police. To him, Manchin is not a dirty word — he recently held a fundraiser with the West Virginia senator.
Both Fetterman and Lamb are from the Pittsburgh-area. Arkoosh and Kenyatta hail from the Philadelphia-area, on the other side of the state.
The candidates’ jabs at high-profile members of their own party often double as knocks on each other. In what are widely seen as shots at Lamb, Fetterman has spent months promising to be the “51st vote” for Biden’s agenda, vowing that he “will NOT be a Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema-type senator,” and lashing Manchin for backing the filibuster. But Fetterman hasn’t called out Lamb by name, an unsurprising approach given his frontrunner status.
Lamb, who polls second behind Fetterman and was outraised by him $9.3 million to $2.6 million as of last quarter, escalated his attacks in an interview with POLITICO. He acknowledged that he was referencing Fetterman when he tweeted recently that “I’M NOT YOUR GUY” if “you want a Senator who runs as a Socialist.”
He said Fetterman often critiques Manchin and Sinema at events at which the two Senate candidates are present. “He’s implying that I’m like them and he’s not,” Lamb said. “So that same structure allowed us to make a couple of other distinctions, which is that I’m not a democratic socialist … and I think that’s an important distinction, because that [infrastructure] bill is going to bring a lot of our jobs to our state, and it turns out that the democratic socialists opposed it.”
Six left-wing House members, including prominent democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, voted against the infrastructure package because it was not immediately paired with a vote on Biden’s social spending bill.
Boiled down to its essence, Lamb’s argument is that Fetterman is too left-wing to win in a competitive state like Pennsylvania, which voted for Donald Trump in 2016 before flipping to Biden four years later: “One of the ways to look at Virginia, New Jersey, these other recent races, and the Pennsylvania results in 2020, are, I don’t think swing voters, voters in the suburbs, are comfortable with the socialist label. And that’s a jersey that John has worn in the past.”
Fetterman’s campaign said he has never described himself as a socialist, noting that as far back as his first run for Senate in 2016, he said in an interview that “I don’t label myself a democratic socialist.” The Lamb team pointed to articles in which reporters have called Fetterman a “self-described democratic socialist,” but were not able to provide any clips in which he has called himself that.
Mike Mikus, a Pittsburgh-based Democratic strategist, said that with Fetterman leading in polling and fundraising, Lamb, Arkoosh and Kenyatta are all currently competing with each other to be the alternative to Fetterman. That makes attacking the leading candidate a smart move, he said.
“The question is, which one of the three is the non-John candidate?” said Mikus, who served as a campaign manager for Democrat Katie McGinty’s 2016 campaign for Senate. “Unlike in the Republican primary, where they just started throwing punches early on, most Democrats are taking a positive approach. … Somebody who steps up and takes on Fetterman will benefit from it.”
Neither Fetterman nor Lamb want to be seen as hailing from the furthest reaches of their party, and they’re using the current debate over Biden’s agenda in Washington to try to prove it.
Fetterman has repeatedly spoken out in support of the infrastructure legislation, calling it a “big win” for the state when it passed the Senate and bashing retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey for opposing it. He’s also taken additional steps to neutralize critics in his party — such as using his email list to fundraise for establishment Democrat Terry McAuliffe during his unsuccessful run for governor in Virginia this year.
Lamb, meanwhile, voted for Biden’s social spending bill and has come out against the filibuster. He even worked with progressives on the legislation, leading Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) to call him and other Democrats in competitive House seats “some of our best friends.” Just as with Fetterman, Lamb has sought to stay in the good graces of his intraparty foes: A prominent progressive in the House said they would not endorse in the primary because they like both Fetterman and Lamb.
Kenyatta and Arkoosh, who have polled behind Fetterman and Lamb, have whacked Manchin for his opposition to key parts of Biden’s legislation as well.
Kenyatta has tweeted several times about Manchin, saying he has been “playing Hamlet on the Build Back Better agenda” and that “working families would like a word” with him. Kenyatta also jumped into the spat between Fetterman and Lamb: After Lamb called himself a “normal Democrat” as compared with Fetterman, Kenyatta said he himself was “not a normal candidate” because he comes from a working-poor family.
When asked about Manchin and Sinema, Rachel Petri, a spokesperson for Arkoosh, listed several points of disagreement, including paid leave and the child tax credit. She added that Arkoosh “thinks it’s bull—- that Joe Manchin was able to kill methane rules from Build Back Better.” As for the Squad, she said that Arkoosh would have voted for the infrastructure bill when asked about the lawmakers.
Despite joining the battle over what it means to be a loyal Democrat, both Kenyatta and Arkoosh sought to distance themselves from the feud between Fetterman and Lamb.
“If those guys want to have that fight, that’s fine with us,” said Doug Thornell, an adviser for Kenyatta. “I think it’ll expose how both of them have vulnerabilities that Malcolm doesn’t have.”
Larry Ceisler, a longtime Pennsylvania political observer working in public relations, said the Democratic candidates’ comments about Manchin and the Squad are “for your supporters, for your base — just to reinforce who you are.”
Though the debate has mostly been confined to social media and email lists, Ceisler said that would change: These attacks will “come out in debates and television ads because each of these candidates have to differentiate themselves from each other.”