Parnell joins crowded Republican field in U.S. Senate race

Sean Parnell, an Afghanistan War veteran who narrowly lost as a first-time congressional candidate to Conor Lamb last year, is officially running for U.S. Senate.

Announcing his bid on Tuesday after weeks of speculation, Mr. Parnell, 39, enters a crowded Republican primary field for the Senate seat that will be vacated by Pat Toomey. The election will be held in 2022.

“In the military, they always tell you that leadership is about going to where the contact is heaviest, where the fight is the toughest,” Mr. Parnell said at a campaign launch event in McCandless, “and the fight for the heart and soul of this country is going to happen right here in Pennsylvania. It is ground zero.”

Mr. Parnell ran for Pennsylvania’s 17th Congressional district last November and lost by about 10,000 votes to Mr. Lamb, the incumbent Democrat from Mt. Lebanon, but didn’t concede. Instead, he joined a challenge in court to disqualify lawfully submitted mail-in ballots that he and other Republicans argued were unconstitutional.

That effort failed, Mr. Lamb took his seat in Congress and the two candidates could be destined for a rematch at a statewide level — as the 17th District lawmaker is also expected to enter the race soon in an equally crowded Democratic field.

Awaiting Mr. Parnell, first, is a Republican primary, in a state that was a cornerstone of former President Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, but similarly a cornerstone of Mr. Trump’s defeat last year. Mr. Parnell was an ardent defender of Mr. Trump’s, while the former president routinely touted the Army combat veteran’s candidacy in trips to the region.

Mr. Parnell had spent more than a year fighting in the Hindu Kush mountains and commanded a 40-man infantry platoon, a combat tour along Afghanistan’s eastern frontier that he documented in his book, “Outlaw Platoon.” He was wounded in action, medically discharged following his deployment in 2006 and awarded two Bronze Stars and the Purple Heart.

His run for Congress, at times, was a conduit for national issues and political spats between Democrats and Mr. Trump.

Like much of the GOP brass that preached of Democrats morphing into out-of-touch extremists, Mr. Parnell repeatedly accused Mr. Lamb of voting “lockstep” with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and for being a faux moderate. Mr. Lamb routinely countered that a large majority of his votes were on bipartisan legislation.

Mr. Parnell struck a similar tone in his launch for Senate, alleging that America’s freedoms are under assault by Democrats.

“This country stands on a very thin line between hope and darkness,” Mr. Parnell said, adding that it is a “duty and responsibility” to stop Democrats from pursuing such reforms as “nuking” the filibuster, giving statehood to D.C. and adding seats to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 17th district seat was a major target for Republicans in their failed mission to take back the House in 2020, as party officials thought the terrain — stretching from Allegheny County’s northern and western suburbs to all of Beaver County and Cranberry — was primed for a military veteran candidate who could hit Democrats for straying too far left.

Mr. Trump echoed those sentiments in visits to the area, and it was he — during a speech in Pittsburgh — who had originally floated Mr. Parnell’s name as a congressional candidate before it was announced officially.

On the trail, Mr. Parnell defended Mr. Trump frequently. He joined in calling the president’s impeachment trial a “sham” and a “witch hunt,” and in a speech at the Republican National Convention, urged “disillusioned” Democrats to abandon their party that had grown with contempt for middle America and back Mr. Trump for four more years.

When Mr. Trump took to Mount Rushmore to declare the nation was “witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history” as a national discussion over systemic racism resulted in the tearing down and re-examination of some historical statues, Mr. Parnell posted a video claiming the U.S. is a “nation at war whether we’d like to admit it or not,” and said the “enemies” are “here on our soil.”

That video — which flashed images of toppled statues as Mr. Parnell claimed domestic enemies are “trying to burn our country to the ground” — was shared by the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., who wrote that it was an example of “how every Republican should take on the mob.” Local academics and political analysts called the video a near-copy of the president’s playbook, and a vapid and insincere interpretation of a more complex series of movements.

After it was clear he had lost the election to Mr. Lamb, Mr. Parnell refused to concede, and his campaign voiced unsubstantiated concerns over “widely reported irregularities.” The rhetoric was reminiscent of the legal battle Mr. Trump was mounting in states where he trailed Democrat Joe Biden, including Pennsylvania.

Mr. Parnell joined a lawsuit in late November with U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Butler, in an effort to bar many mail-in votes from the state’s certified tallies. They alleged that state lawmakers and officials had violated the state constitution by adopting Act 77 in 2019, which let all Pennsylvania voters cast ballots by mail without an excuse. As a result, they wanted the court to toss votes that were out of line with constitutional requirements, lawyers said.

The Commonwealth Court did issue an injunction blocking the state from certifying down-ballot races, but the injunction only lasted briefly before the state Supreme Court threw out the order.

The Republicans eventually asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the certification of votes and to consider the case more broadly. The court rejected both efforts.

Asked by reporters if he thinks the 2020 election was stolen, Mr. Parnell said he doesn’t want to “re-litigate” 2020.

“We did everything we could. We fought our hearts out,” Mr. Parnell said. “At the end of the day, Joe Biden is sitting in the White House … right now, I’m laser focused on winning Pennsylvania in 2022.”

In his run for U.S. Senate, Mr. Parnell is joining a primary field that includes Jeff Bartos, co-founder of the Pennsylvania 30 Day Fund and 2018 GOP nominee for Lt. Governor; Sean Gale, Montgomery County business and health care attorney; Everett Stern, a West Chester-based founder and CEO of private intelligence agency Tactical Rabbit; and Kathy Barnette, author, political commentator and former Congressional candidate.

Several Democrats have declared for the seat, including Lt. Gov. John Fetterman; State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta; Montgomery County Board of Commissioners Chair Val Arkoosh; former Brighton, Ala., Mayor Brandaun Dean; Jenkintown Borough Council member Alex Khalil; and former Norristown Borough councilman John McGuigan.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Julian Routh, May 11, 2021