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Dr. Mehmet Oz, the television personality and Republican Senate hopeful, speaks at CPAC in Orlando. on Feb. 27.Scott McIntyre/The New York Times News Service

A century ago, the Republican Party held a bitterly contested national political convention. Through nine ballots the party was deadlocked. Some 1,200 kilometres away, a stricken senator lay in his bed, accompanied by teams of telegraph operators helping him follow events as he slipped in and out of consciousness. Finally – when, according to The New York Times, “the strain of his long complication of ailments almost finished him” – Boies Penrose stirred and signalled to the nurses a fateful message: Send word to throw the 60 votes of Pennsylvania to Warren G. Harding, delivering the nomination to the Ohio senator.

Today Penrose is a long-forgotten figure, commemorated only by a statue in Harrisburg’s Capitol Park and by one of the 20 portrait heads on the bronze doors of the Pennsylvania State Capitol. But this spring all of this state’s voters are playing the Boies Penrose kingmaker role.

Those voters – now being assaulted by a daily barrage of TV ads – will decide the finalists for perhaps the most bruising Senate race in this year’s midterm congressional elections. If the Democrats prevail in this contest, they may shore up their majority in the near-deadlocked chamber for another two years.

The stakes could not be higher, the amount of money being raised will set a state and perhaps national record, and the characters involved could not be more colourful. If U.S. politics sometimes seems like a circus, then Pennsylvania is the centre ring.

This madcap processin a swing state where Donald Trump prevailed in 2016, lost in 2020, then claimed that his victory was stolen from him here – will have national impact. Pennsylvania is not called the Keystone State for nothing; located in the middle of the original 13 colonies, it is the wedge-shaped stone that sits at the centre of the arch, keeping the other stones in place.

And yet there are multiple moving parts to this vital primary election.

The Republican race is boiling down to a contest between a doctor who became a celebrity through his regular appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show (though Ms. Winfrey has refused to endorse him) and a hedge-fund executive whose wife is an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian (but who has launched suggestions that his rival’s Turkish roots make him unelectable). The Democratic contest is principally between a shaved-head lieutenant-governor who wears shorts year round (in a corner of the state where the average winter temperature is 3 Celsius) and a straitlaced Marine who is more “Mr. Do-Bee” (the name of the bumblebee in the classic 1953-1994 children’s show Romper Room, who implored, “Do bee good boys and girls”) than “do-be-do-be-do” (the coda favoured by Frank Sinatra of the mid-century liquor-and-licentiousness Rat Pack).

All this because Republican Patrick J. Toomey Jr., perhaps the most conventional figure in this entire political drama, has decided not to seek a third term. He is a traditional Republican who voted to convict Mr. Trump in the impeachment trial that followed the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. When he announced he was retiring he said, “I decided early on I’m not responsible for the President’s Twitter feeds. I am not responsible for editing his comments in any given medium.”

On the Republican side, neither Dr. Mehmet Oz nor Goldman Sachs executive David McCormick has yet won Mr. Trump’s support, though Mr. McCormick’s wife, a former Trump administration national-security official, has called the former president so often that he reportedly has grown irritated by the entreaties. Both Democratic contenders, Lieutenant-Governor John Fetterman and Representative Conor Lamb, deplore Mr. Trump’s actions and comportment, but Mr. Fetterman is close to the progressive wing of the party, and if Gilbert and Sullivan were to write a comic opera of the House of Representatives, Mr. Lamb, who has an unusually prominent profile in the chamber for a lawmaker who has served only four years, would be cast as the very model of the modern major moderate.

“The past four or five years have changed the nature of our politics,” said Kathleen Ianello, an emerita Gettysburg College political scientist. “They have taught us that it is okay for just about anyone to run for office. The question is whether colourful antics by people on the extremes will prevail and how that defines the two parties in the state in the post-Trump era.”

The irony is that Pennsylvania traditionally has sent sober-minded figures to Washington. Since the Second World War, the state has elected a Republican senator so sickened by Richard Nixon’s role in the Watergate coverup that he urged the president to resign (Hugh Scott) and a thoughtful Republican scion of the Heinz ketchup fortune immensely respected by members of both parties (John Heinz). But it has also had lawmakers whose views have prompted them to scramble the usual calculus, such as Arlen Specter (who moved from the Democratic Party to the GOP, then back again) and Robert Casey Jr. (a Democrat personally opposed to abortion).

This May 17 twin primaries – and, likely, the general election that will follow – comprise a classic contemporary American political contest where policy stands are far less important than political profiles. Each party has one establishment figure and one unconventional figure. Each party has principal contenders whose views diverge only by small degrees. Both Democrats favour abortion rights; both Republicans oppose them. Both Democrats say they would vote to abolish the Senate filibuster; both Republicans would retain it.

“At a time when we are focused on the survival of democracy at home and abroad, and when Volodymyr Zelensky is showing us the value of character in politics, voters aren’t looking only at policy positions,” said Dana Brown, a political scientist at Pittsburgh’s Chatham University. “The voters this spring are attuned to what kind of true character they want to represent their party’s values.”

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