Sean Parnell launches a critical Senate campaign in Pennsylvania

ALLISON PARK, Pennsylvania — “I have heard the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you figure out why,” Sean Parnell said Tuesday. The retired Army vet and Allegheny County Republican was alluding there to 9/11, the event that had prompted him to join the military and serve his country. Parnell brought this up as he was announcing his candidacy for the U.S. Senate.

Parnell is seeking the seat currently held by Lehigh Valley Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, who is retiring after his second term.

He ran as a political novice in 2020 against incumbent Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb. He surprised national and local politicos when he came up just inches short of a spectacular upset against the third-generation scion of an Allegheny County Democratic political family.

Parnell outraised the incumbent and outperformed expectations in the suburban 17th Congressional District that had been gerrymandered by the Democrat-controlled state Supreme Court specifically for Lamb.

This time around, Parnell, a native of Pittsburgh’s working-class Oakland neighborhood, made the announcement at Cadence Clubhouse, a brand new 7,000-square-foot barn that houses a glistening cafe, bar, and pro shop popular with local cyclists and runners.

“The fight for this heart and soul of this country is going to be won right here in Pennsylvania,” Parnell told his supporters in the graveled beer garden outside the clubhouse. “I am going to be running into the flames again to fight for this country.”

The Pennsylvania Senate race is one of the four battleground races that will likely determine the Senate majority after the 2022 midterm elections. The other three are Arizona, Georgia, and North Carolina. Arizona and Georgia have two freshman Democrats running, and Pennsylvania and North Carolina are open Republican seats. The field of critical races could grow, but these four states are the top tier for both parties.

Parnell was attending Clarion University on 9/11 when he watched both planes hit the towers from his dorm room. In short order, he joined the Army, changed universities, and began his service in Afghanistan; by 2006, he was commanding a platoon stationed at the Pakistani border.

His experience earned him two Bronze Stars, one for valor. He also earned a Purple Heart. Parnell, 39, chronicled the 16 months of his platoon’s relentless firefights in the mountains of Paktika province to upend the Haqqani network in the New York Times bestseller, Outlaw Platoon.

Toomey announced last fall he would not seek reelection. His retirement opened the race on both sides of the aisle for the Senate seat he has held since 2011.

The race for governor in Pennsylvania is also open. Gov. Tom Wolf, a York Democrat, is term-limited.

Political pundits will spend the next year focusing on how pro-Trump each candidate is in both of these statewide Republican primaries, said G. Terry Madonna, senior fellow for political affairs at Millersville University. “But Pennsylvania primary voters are much more complicated than that,” he said. “Local issues do matter, and if Trump is their only focus, they may miss where the race is going.”

While President Donald Trump has not weighed in on the race, his son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted in February, “My friend Sean Parnell is a strong America First conservative and has my support for any office he decides to run for in 2022!!!”

A call to Trump Jr.’s team confirmed that his support for Parnell has not budged.

Madonna said it is too early to tell whether 2022 will be either a brake pedal or gas pedal reaction to Biden’s presidency. Historically, incumbent presidents tend to face the former in midterm elections, but not always. George W. Bush in 2002 and Bill Clinton in 1998 got a small press to the gas pedal. “But make no mistake,” Madonna said. “It will be a reaction to him and his policies, and the bottom line is there’s no way to understate the significance of how important the Senate elections are going to be, especially since we will have had nearly two years of a 50/50 Senate.”

Madonna added, “Barring any great disaster, I think Pennsylvania will remain a toss-up race for the Senate.” He could have been referring to either of Toomey’s victories — the first, in 2010, was by just 2 percentage points, and the 2016 race was decided by just 1.5 points. But he was also pointing to last year’s mixed results for Republican and Democratic candidates up and down the ballot. Joe Biden prevailed narrowly over Trump, by 80,000 votes. But Democrats down-ballot weren’t so lucky; they lost two out of the three statewide elected row offices, all of the state House and state Senate races they were competing for, and their well-funded bids to topple Rep. Scott Perry and Brian Fitzpatrick simply fizzled out.

James Carville once remarked that Pennsylvania was just Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, with Alabama in the middle. To prevail in a general election, Madonna said, a Republican nominee would have to gin up the vote in that Alabama region, the traditional conservative “T” counties that run across the northern border with New York and down through the center of the state. This means that the Republican nominee will have to run strongly in the northwest — in Erie County, which Trump won in 2016 but narrowly lost in 2020. Ideally, Republicans would also like to win back some of their anti-Trump suburban voters in Allegheny, Chester, and Bucks counties and then continue the gains made in relatively pro-Trump Democratic areas such as Northampton and Luzerne counties in the northeast.

To that point last Saturday, Parnell spoke at the Luzerne County GOP dinner, the first one held in years. Justin Behrens, the chairman of the party there, said the western Pennsylvania Republican made quite the impression with local party members, “He spoke on his call to service, and people really liked that.”

Behrens said the political changes in Luzerne County are remarkable, not just in national elections but also local ones, which are also trending Republican. “What is happening now is that the Democratic Party here in Luzerne County is not representing the working class anymore,” he said. “They represent that progressive movement that people here in northeastern Pennsylvania and Luzerne County don’t want to be represented with, and that’s why you see Luzerne County turning red.”

Lamb, who is also widely expected to jump into the Senate race on the Democratic side, campaigned in the Scranton area last week for state Senate candidate Marty Flynn, who is running in a special election for the 22nd state Senate district, which lies within Luzerne, Lackawanna, and Monroe counties and has been held by a Democrat for decades. That streak may soon come to an end.

In the U.S. Senate race, current Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, Philadelphia state Sen. Malcolm Kenyatta, and Montgomery County Chairman Val Arkoosh are the only three Democrats to make it official that they are seeking their party’s nomination for the seat.

In the past, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and the DSCC have successfully managed to keep multiple primary candidates out of must-win battleground races. To date, however, they have not been able to prevent Pennsylvania from becoming a clown-car race.

Lamb is expected to run for the Senate because his congressional seat will probably be the one to disappear in redistricting — Pennsylvania must lose a seat thanks to sluggish population growth. This could give rise to an unlikely rematch next November.

Parnell had never run for office prior to his narrow loss in 2020. But the suburban Pittsburgh father of three has been involved as a volunteer in Pennsylvania politics for over eight years, volunteering for Tom Corbett’s first run for the state’s chief executive in 2010, as well as for Rep. Mike Kelly’s and former Rep. Keith Rothfus’s congressional campaigns.

Washington Examiner, Salena Zito, May 12, 2021