Election Day 2022 is still many months off, but already the primary season is shaping up to be a lulu. So much at stake. So many electrifying candidates — albeit some less evidently qualified than others. (Dr. Oz? Seriously?) And scads to be learned about the unsettling state of American democracy.
High-profile races in two crucial swing states promise to be especially enlightening, offering a handy guide to the existential issues roiling the parties. The contrast could hardly be starker.
In Pennsylvania, the Democratic fight for a Senate seat features an array of contenders slugging it out over a slew of knotty questions involving policy and ideology, progressivism, populism, centrism and how — or even if — to woo blue-collar whites in deep-purple places.
In Georgia, the Republican battle for governor has been reduced to the singular, defining question looming over the whole party: Does the G.O.P. still have room for leaders who aren’t Trump-addled invertebrates?
The outcomes of these contests will shake the parties well beyond the states in play.
It’s tough to overstate the importance of the Pennsylvania Senate race. With Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican, retiring, the state is considered the Democrats’ best hope for picking up a seat and retaining their whip-thin majority. But there is much debate over what kind of candidate has the best shot at victory.
The current front-runner is the lieutenant governor, John Fetterman. The former mayor of a busted steel town on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Mr. Fetterman has been on the national political scene for a while as a champion of Rust Belt populism. His profile shot way up in the wake of last year’s elections, with his frequent media appearances smacking down Donald Trump’s election-fraud lies.
When the lieutenant governor talks, it’s hard not to listen. Standing 6-foot-8, he is bald, hulking, goateed and tattooed. He wears work shirts and cargo shorts and radiates an anti-establishment, anti-elitist vibe that his supporters say helps him connect with the rural and blue-collar types who have abandoned the Democrats in recent years. He presents more as a guy you’d see storming the Capitol with his biker pals than a candidate espousing progressive policies like Medicare for all and criminal justice reform.
He’s known as a bit of a loner, and not all of his positions play well with progressives. (For instance, he opposes an immediate ban on fracking.) But he was a Bernie backer in 2016, and he is not above poking at his party’s more conservative members. He vows that, if elected, he will not be “a Joe Manchin- or Kyrsten Sinema-type” centrist obstructing President Biden’s agenda.
Such criticisms are seen as indirect slaps at Mr. Fetterman’s closest opponent in the race, Representative Conor Lamb. A Marine Corps veteran and former federal prosecutor, Mr. Lamb shocked and thrilled his party by winning a special election in 2018 in a conservative western district that went for Mr. Trump by nearly 20 points in 2016.
Mr. Lamb is an unabashed moderate, and his politics and personal style are decidedly more buttoned-down than Mr. Fetterman’s — more high school principal than pro wrestler. He has expressed frustration with his party’s left flank for “advocating policies that are unworkable and extremely unpopular,” such as defunding the police. He speaks kindly of Mr. Manchin, with whom he did a fund-raiser this year. He contends that Mr. Fetterman leans too far left, and he characterizes himself as “a normal Democrat” who can appeal to working-class voters and suburban moderates alike.
There are other, lesser-known Democrats in the mix, too. A state lawmaker, Malcolm Kenyatta, hails from North Philly. Young, Black, progressive and gay, with a working-poor background, he has pitched himself as the candidate to energize the party’s base voters, especially those who tend to sit out nonpresidential elections.
Commissioner Val Arkoosh of Montgomery County is based in Philadelphia’s upscale, voter-rich suburbs. She leans liberal on policy and has been endorsed by Emily’s List. An obstetric anesthesiologist, she hopes to position herself as a sensible alternative to Dr. Mehmet Oz, the celebrity physician who jumped into the Republican primary contest about two weeks ago. She is also betting that the growing threat to abortion rights will help her rally suburban women, whom she sees as a natural base.
Wherever this race ultimately leads, there will be lessons for other Democrats looking to compete in tough battleground areas.
The Georgia primary for governor could prove even more clarifying about the state of the G.O.P. — though not in a good way. The Republican incumbent, Brian Kemp, is running for re-election. But he is high on Mr. Trump’s drop-dead list for refusing to help overturn the results of last November’s election.
Desperate to see Mr. Kemp unseated, Mr. Trump lobbied former Senator David Perdue, who also lost his re-election bid last cycle, to challenge the governor. Last week, Mr. Perdue entered the race. Mr. Trump promptly endorsed him, slagging Mr. Kemp as “a very weak governor” who “can’t win because the MAGA base — which is enormous — will never vote for him.”
This contest is not about Mr. Kemp’s politics or governing chops. Both he and Mr. Perdue are staunch conservatives and fierce partisans. And Mr. Perdue is not some hard-charging outsider looking to overthrow the establishment or push the party to the right or redefine conservatism in some fresh way. In his announcement video, Mr. Perdue blamed Mr. Kemp for dividing Republicans and costing them Georgia’s two Senate seats. “This isn’t personal. It’s simple,” said Mr. Perdue. “He has failed all of us and cannot win in November.”
Mr. Perdue is correct that this is simple. But it is also deeply personal — for Mr. Trump. This matchup is about the former president having reduced the G.O.P. to an extension of his own ego, redefining party loyalty as blind fealty to him and his election-fraud lies. Whatever his personal aims, Mr. Perdue is just another tool in Mr. Trump’s vendetta against Republicans he sees as insufficiently servile. The race is expected to be bloody, expensive and highly divisive — all the things parties aim to avoid in a primary.
The G.O.P. is already hemorrhaging Trump-skeptical, independent-minded officials at all levels. Just this month, Charlie Baker, the popular Republican governor of deep-blue Massachusetts, announced that he would not run for re-election. If Georgia Republicans take the bait and throw Mr. Kemp over for Mr. Trump’s preferred lickspittle, it will send a clear message to the party’s dwindling pockets of principle and rationality: Get out. Now. While you still have a soul.
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