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It’s Primary Night in Pennsylvania, and All Hell Is Set to Break Loose

The outcome in Pennsylvania tonight could shed light on the current disposition of Republican voters more broadly.

Pennsylvania U.S. Senate candidates Kathy Barnette and Mehmet Oz walk off the stage after speaking at a Republican leadership forum at Newtown Athletic Club on May 11, 2022, in Newtown, Pennsylvania.

The congressional midterm elections are upon us again, with major primary votes taking place today in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Kentucky, Idaho and Oregon. Lovers of shame and schadenfreude will be tuned in to North Carolina, where scandal-factory Madison Cawthorn will find out just how fed up his fellow Republicans are with his act. Cawthorn’s defeat tonight would mean one less incoherent fascist in the House, another fine haircut down in the ditch of history.

For our purposes, however, we will stick to the Keystone State of Pennsylvania, where a wild, Trump-lathered primary season is finally concluding. Of all the states up for grabs tonight, Pennsylvania serves as the best bowl of national tea leaves. “The results will help clarify the mood of the country,” opines The New York Times. “Pennsylvania, a longtime swing state, has often signaled what American voters are thinking.”

The outcome in Pennsylvania tonight will reveal a lot about the current disposition of the Republican Party, and by proxy Donald Trump. Given the outsized influence Trump has over the GOP, what happens in Pennsylvania won’t stay in Pennsylvania. The Senate race in particular is a perfection of Trump-riddled Republican politics.

Three candidates face off tonight — celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, businessman David McCormick, and late-surging Kathy Barnette, a far right commentator who has espoused anti-Muslim and anti-LGBTQ sentiments. Oz holds a slim lead in the latest polls, but Barnette has pulled off the electoral version of a ten-run rally in the ninth inning and is nipping at Oz’s heels. McCormick is slightly behind in third, and with 15 percent of voters still undecided, anything can happen.

Due in no small part to all things celebrity, Trump chose to endorse Oz to the dismay of most election-savvy traditional Republicans. Oz was basically a Democrat about 45 seconds ago, and is on the record espousing certain views that make your average GOP primary voter want to climb a tree. McCormick the CEO seemed the obvious choice for Trump’s endorsement, but Trump went with the TV guy instead, and there you have it.

The race was already wild before Barnette came roaring to the fore in recent weeks. One moment galvanized her campaign and set the stage for her current surge: Barnette recently announced that her mother survived rape at age 11 and gave birth to her at age 12 as a result, a revelation that resonated deeply with a Republican base that is growing increasingly opposed to permitting exceptions for rape and incest within their draconian abortion bans.

The drama surrounding Barnette’s campaign only deepens when you see who’s in her corner: The extreme right Club for Growth, an organization Trump has had favorable dealings with in the past. Two weeks ago, the Club backed the non-Trump candidate in Ohio, and it has done so again with Barnette in Pennsylvania. They are gambling that Trump’s influence in the party is on the wane, and are jockeying for the catbird seat in a post-Trump political landscape. Trump, for his part, is reportedly raging about the Club being “disloyal.”

The Club is not backing down. “We’d love to partner with [Trump],” Club board member Frayda Levin told The Washington Post, “but sometimes we disagree; it’s that simple. No one can explain Trump’s relationships, nor can his five ex-wives or whatever. You can quote me on that.”

Barnette is no shrinking violet in this clash, either. Responding to critics who say she cannot win in November, Barnette declared, “I lost by 19 points [in her 2020 congressional race], Donald Trump lost by more than 26 points [in Pennsylvania’s last presidential vote]. Who’s less electable with those numbers?” Yeah, that’ll leave a mark.

Trump friends and foes alike are staring hard at this race tonight, as the outcome — and Trump’s perceived clout — will resonate in virtually every other state’s primary to come. Worse for the GOP if Trump’s picks lose will be if some of his goofier picks actually pull off a victory; seats the GOP could have for the asking would suddenly be a towering challenge to win.

Look no further than Pennsylvania itself for this phenomenon: Whoever emerges from the GOP primary will likely face Democratic Lt. Governor John Fetterman in the general election, and Fetterman is currently hospitalized after suffering a stroke. He is expected to recover, but the health question would seem to make this seat an easier GOP pick-up than most unless they nominate someone like Oz, who was booed by the audience at a recent Trump rally. This does not bode well for general election GOP turnout in that state.

I have always carried a low dread for midterm congressional elections. Chalk it up to 1994, when the GOP — led by Newt Gingrich and his balderdashian “Contract for America” — picked up a whopping 54 House seats, taking majority control of that chamber for the first time in 40 years. The GOP also took over the Senate in that election, giving the party total control of Congress.

A day after the election, on my damn birthday in fact, Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby abandoned the Democrats for the Republicans, increasing the GOP’s majority control in the Senate. Gingrich became house speaker, and our long national descent into the current crisis began in earnest.

It was a bad day.

I want to like the midterms, I really do, because they are fascinating. Every House seat goes up for election every two years, and every Senate seat goes up in cycles every six years, but the electoral dynamic during presidential years profoundly inflates turnout, which has a way of making the results more predictable. Not so with the midterms; historically low turnout for these votes means just about anything can and does happen, depending on which base is more motivated.

Some true right-wingers have made their way into Congress during these elections, but then again, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and a slew of the Squad likewise came in thanks to a midterm. In any event, the fact that midterms tend to be low-turnout and highly base-driven means they have a way of altering the dynamic of the legislative branch in ways no other elections can.

Regardless of my feelings about midterms, I am an all-day sucker for primaries, and this here before us could be called “Midterm Super Tuesday.” Thanks to the shabby, money-flooded way we do elections in this country, primary elections are the last, best place a voter can really throw weight and have their decision matter. It’s all a big TV show once the general elections start, but primaries are where you can really shake the tree.

Case in point: Bernie Sanders failed to win the Democratic nomination for president two elections in a row but won enough primaries during his campaigns that the party was altered forever, and for the better. Those who vote in primaries can change the course of this wacky world in surprising ways.

Let’s see what happens next.