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What to watch for in Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primaries

Tuesday, 23 April 2024 12:28 News

Pennsylvania primary voters will cast ballots Tuesday in a series of critical races in the key battleground state, even as both the presidential and Senate primaries are mere formalities.

They include a bitterly fought Democratic primary around Pittsburgh and a primary in eastern Pennsylvania that features a moderate Republican seeking to fend off a right-wing challenger. 

What’s more, activists upset with President Joe Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war are urging Democrats to write “uncommitted” on the state’s primary ballot. And in the GOP primary, Republicans looking to cast protest votes against former President Donald Trump can still find former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who ended her campaign last month, on their ballots. 

Pennsylvania is one of the most evenly divided states in the country, so both parties will be searching for any clues the primary may offer about the November election.

With polls closing at 8 p.m. ET., here’s what to watch for Tuesday.

A House district where the war in Gaza is front and center

In the 12th Congressional District, Democratic Rep. Summer Lee faces a challenge from Edgewood Borough Council member Bhavini Patel in a race that has put the Israel-Hamas war front and center.

Lee, a member of the progressive “squad” in Congress and one of the first lawmakers to call for a cease-fire, has accused the Israeli government of committing “war crimes” and called for an end to unconditional military aid to the country, and on Saturday she joined 36 Democrats and 21 Republicans in voting against an aid package to the country, which passed overwhelmingly. She and Republican Rep. Scott Perry were the only Pennsylvania members to vote against it.

Patel, who launched her campaign days before Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack, has sought to cut into Lee’s support by saying her refusal to distance herself from groups and activists calling for an “uncommitted” primary vote will hurt Biden this fall.

Lee, who won her first primary race in 2022 after she overcame a raft of spending from groups aligned with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, is looking stronger this time around. She’s well-defined in the district and has framed her bid around taking on Trump-aligned Republicans and bringing federal dollars to the district. The same AIPAC-aligned groups that fought her last time aren’t spending on the race this time around.

The district includes Squirrel Hill, one of the country’s most prominent historically Jewish neighborhoods and site of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, where a white supremacist killed 11 worshippers in 2018. It was the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history.

Lee has called on Hamas to release hostages it still holds and has repeatedly spoken out against antisemitism.

“We have communities that are hurting. The Jewish community is one of them. And there are people who are … not going to agree 100% on everything that you say,” Lee said in an interview, adding she has been “very clear and very upfront” about her cease-fire position. “I have condemned Hamas. We’ve worked with the families of hostages; we’ve done everything that I think is necessary to do that. And at the end of the day, we disagree.”

The race will be an early test of whether sentiment about the war in Gaza will play a significant role in races this year.

Setting up a critical Senate race

Democratic Sen. Bob Casey and Republican challenger Dave McCormick are poised to cruise to victories Tuesday, setting up a key contest in the fight for control of the Senate.

McCormick, who lost the GOP primary in 2022 to Trump-backed celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, managed to clear the field ahead of this bid and rallied a Pennsylvania Republican establishment behind him that was tired of the infighting that contributed to defeats up and down the ballot in the midterms. It’s a dynamic that has allowed him to focus on the general election battle against Casey from the get-go.

The race could determine which party holds the majority in the Senate, where Democrats hold a 51-49 advantage. 

A moderate Republican on defense

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick has built a brand as a moderate Republican, so he has often attracted primary challengers from the right. This year, Fitzpatrick isn’t taking any chances in his primary race against anti-abortion-rights activist Matt Houck.

Fitzpatrick’s campaign has spent nearly $2 million so far, according to recent campaign finance reports, far outspending Houck, who has dropped $145,000 and had just $11,000 left in his account as of April 3. Fitzpatrick’s campaign had nearly $3.7 million on hand. 

Houck grabbed headlines for his arrest after an altercation with a Planned Parenthood volunteer, and he was acquitted last year. Fitzpatrick’s campaign has launched multiple negative TV ads against Houck, as well as spots bolstering his own conservative credentials. In one ad, Fitzpatrick says, “The far left is attacking the very ideals that brought so many to our shores, indoctrinating our kids with anti-American hate and leaving our borders wide open.” 

The primary race has drawn attention from outside groups, with two super PACs spending in the race to bolster Fitzpatrick: the Defending America PAC and the Congressional Leadership Fund, which is aligned with House GOP leadership. A group tied to Democrats has also meddled in the primary, Politico reported.

Fitzpatrick, a former FBI agent, has been an elusive target for Democrats looking to flip the competitive 1st District in the Philadelphia suburbs. If he wins the primary, Fitzpatrick will once again face Democrat Ashley Ehasz, an Army veteran whom he defeated by 10 points in 2022 even after Biden won the district by 5 points two years previously, according to calculations from Daily Kos Elections. The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter rates the 1st District race as likely Republican. 

Setting up battleground House matchups  

Tuesday’s primaries will also solidify the matchups in four other competitive House districts. Two of them are already set, with businessman Rob Bresnahan the only Republican in the race to take on Democratic Rep. Matt Cartwright in the 8th District and state Rep. Rob Mercuri the only Republican taking on Democratic Rep. Chris Deluzio in the 17th District. 

But there are competitive primaries to take on two other Pennsylvania lawmakers in battleground districts: Democratic Rep. Susan Wild and GOP Rep. Scott Perry. 

In Wild’s 7th District north of Philadelphia, the top Republicans include state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie and Kevin Dellicker, who owns a technology company. Mackenzie has support from the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity Action, while Dellicker has slightly outspent Mackenzie in the primary.

Wild won a third term in 2022 by just 2 points, and Biden won her district by less than 1 point in 2020. The Cook Political Report rates the race a toss-up.

In the 10th District, which includes Harrisburg, six Democrats are competing to take on Perry, the former chairman of the hard-right House Freedom Caucus. The top contenders include Marine veteran Mike O’Brien, who was a TOPGUN pilot, and former local TV news anchor Janelle Stelson, who has support from EMILY’s List, a group that backs female candidates who support abortion rights. 

While Democrats believe Perry is vulnerable, especially given his clashes with the Justice Department’s investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, Democrats would face an uphill climb in a district Trump won by 4 points in 2020. The Cook Political Report rates the race as lean Republican. 

Biden protest vote

Biden is his party’s presumptive presidential nominee, but activists opposed to the war in Gaza are once again calling on Democrats to cast votes to protest the administration’s support for Israel. 

A coalition of groups called “Uncommitted PA” is urging voters to write in “uncommitted” in the Democratic presidential primary, following similar efforts in other primary states. The group is looking for 40,000 write-in votes, about half of Biden’s margin of victory in Pennsylvania in 2020. Only registered Democrats can participate in Tuesday’s primary.

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