Pennsylvania dispatch: abortion, gun rights, and election procedures figure prominently in contentious state primaries
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Pennsylvania dispatch: abortion, gun rights, and election procedures figure prominently in contentious state primaries

Lauren Ban is a rising 2L at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and JURIST’s US Bureau Chief. 

Pennsylvania is less than 24 hours out from primary elections—and there are some major issues on the line right here on JURIST’s doorstep that have attracted national and even international attention.

Pennsylvania primaries are a complicated beast to explain to in-state people, let alone out-of-state or out-of-country. To give a brief run-of-show, Pennsylvania primaries are limited participation elections, meaning only voters formally registered under the Democratic or Republican party can participate. When voters go to cast their ballots on Tuesday, May 17, they will only be able to select from the candidates running for the various political positions within their own party (i.e. Democratic or Republican). Following the primary elections, all Pennsylvania voters are then able to select a candidate from any party affiliations (including third parties) to fill the political position in the general election in November.

And while there is the usual litany of municipal and state congressional races on the ballot this year, all eyes have been turned towards two races in particular: the gubernatorial and US Senate races. That’s right. Tuesday’s election determines which Democratic and Republican nominees will face off in November’s general election for Pennsylvania’s governorship and one US Senate seat.

Neither the gubernatorial nor the US Senate race have incumbent candidates (candidates who currently hold office) running this election cycle. As a result, Pennsylvanian voters are faced with crowded fields of newcomer-candidates in both races. Each candidate claims to be the best solution to key issues like abortion, gun rights, and election procedures—among others.

The Pennsylvania US Senate race has garnered national attention because of how closely divided the US Senate is right now. Democrats and Republicans hold an equal number of seats, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the Democratic tie-breaker in votes requiring a simple majority. The Pennsylvania US Senate seat up for grabs on Tuesday was previously held by Republican Senator Pat Toomey. As a result, Senate Republicans are seeking to defend that seat so that, in combination with potential gains in other states, Republicans are able to win back a majority in the US Senate. Senate Democrats, on the other hand, are seeking to gain the Pennsylvania US Senate seat to try to wrangle a stronger majority. Bear in mind that key legislation like voting rights and abortion protection have been blocked by Senate Republicans, who refuse to give Democrats the additional ten votes needed to pass the 60-vote threshold to pass a bill into law.

Meanwhile, at the state level, Pennsylvania Democrats are hoping to hold on to the governorship to prevent the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania House and Senate from passing certain bills into laws. Current Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has held the office since 2015. Since Wolf hit his term limit, Democrats are hoping to fill his seat with another Democrat to maintain veto power over state Republican legislation. Should Republicans gain control of the governorship, however, Pennsylvanians could see new laws expanding gun rights, limiting abortion access and curtailing voter participation.

Since the Pennsylvania primary is broken out into the two major parties, that seems like the best way to introduce the candidates and their stances on key issues. Beginning with the seven Republicans in the US Senate race, there is:

  • Kathy Barnette
  • Jeff Bartos
  • George Bochetto
  • Sean Gale
  • David McCormick
  • Mehmet Oz
  • Carla Sands

There are nine Republicans running in the gubernatorial race, including:

  • Lou Barletta
  • Jake Corman (dropped out of the race, but his name will still appear on the ballot)
  • Joe Gale
  • Charlie Gerow
  • Melissa Hart
  • Doug Mastriano
  • Bill McSwain
  • David White
  • Nche Zama

As is true for almost every election since 2016, former President Donald Trump has played an outsized role in the Pennsylvania Republican primary race. Even the candidates who have not explicitly received Trump’s endorsement have used his name and aurora to attract voters to their campaigns. Trump has even visited the state to rally for his chosen US Senate candidate, Mehmet Oz. Granted, Trumpism only gets candidates so far. For example, in light of the recently leaked Supreme Court decision on abortion rights, US Senate candidate Kathy Barnette has recently sky-rocketed in attention for her anti-abortion stance. The three current front-runners include Oz, Barnette, and David McCormick.

The gubernatorial race has been a bit more clear-cut with Doug Mastriano leading the way in polls. Like Oz, Mastriano has also received Trump’s blessing. Mastriano has been an ardent Trump supporter and has made alarming statements regarding election security. He even attended the January 6 Capitol riot. All in all, the theme across the Republican field appears to be one of curbing government overreach. Should Republicans win either or both of the seats, both the Pennsylvania and US Senate political landscape have the potential to shift dramatically.

As for Democrats, there are only four candidates running for US Senate. Candidates include:

  • John Fetterman
  • Malcolm Kenyatta
  • Alexandria Khalil
  • Connor Lamb

There is only one Democrat running in the Pennsylvania gubernatorial race: Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

Shapiro has built a steady reputation in Pennsylvania politics, beginning at the local level and working his way up to top prosecutor as the state attorney general. Shapiro has represented the state in a variety of cases which similarly reflect his platform as well. Among these issues are protecting voter access, maintaining abortion rights and expanding gun regulation. As the only candidate, Shapiro likely receives the Democratic party nomination for the gubernatorial race.

The US Senate Democratic candidate field, however, is a bit more complicated. Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman has led the field with his progressive positions and Braddock, Pennsylvania Rust Belt background. Trailing behind him are US Congressman Connor Lamb, Pennsylvania Representative Malcolm Kenyatta, and Jenkintown councilwoman Alexandria Khalil. The question for Democrats in the US Senate race is whether a more moderate candidate like Lamb would boast better results in the general election than progressive Fetterman or Kenyatta. Pennsylvania is what is known as a swing state. This is because state-wide races could be won by either a Democratic or Republican candidate, depending on the race and the year. With so many key issues on the line at both the state and national level, Democrats are especially honed-in on whether a more moderate or progressive stance on key issues will fare better in the general election come November.

Ultimately, the champions for the Democratic and Republican parties heading into the November general election will be decided by Pennsylvania voters by the end of the day tomorrow. Polls are open tomorrow Tuesday May 17 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. local time for in-person voting.