Skip to main content
analysis

Pennsylvania Republican U.S. Senate candidate Mehmet Oz speaks at his primary election night watch party in Newtown, Pa., on May 17.HANNAH BEIER/Reuters

So much for Pennsylvania’s reputation, cultivated for generations by bland, dutiful political figures, as a state of steady habits and a commonwealth of comity.

Comic and chaotic, bombastic and brutal, disorderly but ultimately decisive, the raucous Pennsylvania primary crashed to conclusion with a colourful but crowded winners’ circle: A celebrity doctor. A 6-foot-8 Harvard graduate who favours cargo shorts and a faded hoodie and was outfitted with a pacemaker on primary day. A state legislator who was subpoenaed by the congressional committee investigating the insurrection at the Capitol. A crusading prosecutor who tried to enlist the Pope in his offensive against pedophile priests.

And of course the figure without whom no contemporary American political drama would be complete: Donald Trump.

As if the political combat and contention that has dominated the state’s conversation for months weren’t enough, the primary election is going into overtime. The fight for the Republican Senate nomination is too close to call and, with absentee ballots holding the balance of power, may be headed for a recount.

The result will be a clash for the governor’s chair between an establishment Democrat and a Republican who tried to overturn the 2020 election and, one way or another, a fight for a critical Senate seat between two figures representing the new extremes of their party.

“The primary was wild because the personalities were so strong and the stakes are so great – and the general election is still six months away,” said Sarah Niebler, a political scientist at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. “We are looking at months of negative, expensive and pretty crazy campaigning.”

The showcase prizefight is between Democratic Lieutenant-Governor John Fetterman, who suffered a stroke only days before he won the party’s nomination, and either Republican Mehmet Oz, a physician who a dozen years ago had a colonoscopy on national television, or hedge-fund executive David McCormick, who moved back to his native state only six months ago. They’re vying for the Senate seat being relinquished by Patrick Toomey.

The undercard pits Democratic state attorney-general Josh Shapiro, who took on Pennsylvania’s Catholic clerical leadership for turning a blind eye to abuse by priests, against Republican State Senator Douglas Mastriano, who was at the “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington on Jan. 6, 2020. They’ll be battling to succeed Democratic Governor Tom Wolf.

Both races have national implications. The next governor will play a critical role in determining the destiny of the 20 electoral votes possessed by Pennsylvania, a classic battleground state with an East Coast geography and a Midwest sensibility that voted once for Mr. Trump and once against him. The next senator could very well tip the balance of power in the Senate, now split evenly between the two major political parties.

That was a central element of the Senate campaign of Mr. McCormick, who espoused many of Mr. Trump’s views but argued that he would be a more acceptable choice for undecided voters than Dr. Oz, who had Mr. Trump’s endorsement.

And for once, a set of Pennsylvania political battles stands as a symbol of the country’s broader political forces, for flickering across the 455-kilometre-wide state that stretches from the Atlantic coast to the shores of Lake Erie is a black-and-white motion picture of two major parties moving even farther apart.

“The Republican Senate and gubernatorial races were a fight over what the Trumpist party will stand for,” said Scott Meinke, a political scientist at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. “The Democratic races were a fight over what the Democratic coalition would look like in the future. Pennsylvania politics became polarized more slowly than they did elsewhere, but they are polarizing now.”

And though Mr. Trump emerged triumphant Tuesday night in the gubernatorial primary with Mr. Mastriano’s win, it remains unclear whether that was a Pyrrhic victory or an indicator of his continued strength in U.S. politics. His candidate in a North Carolina congressional primary, Rep. Ted Budd, prevailed, but in the Idaho gubernatorial primary, his choice, Lieutenant-Governor Janice McGeachin, was trounced by incumbent Brad Little. If Dr. Oz is defeated in the primary or the general election, and if Mr. Mastriano loses in November, then the imprimatur of Mr. Trump’s endorsement will be devalued and his power on the national stage could be diminished.

The US$200,000 contribution to Mr. Shapiro’s campaign from film director Steven Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw, and the presence of Dr. Oz, a prominent figure on The Oprah Winfrey Show, stand as symbols of a new aspect of Pennsylvania politics: the emergence of celebrity in a state that in 232 years has contributed only one president, James Buchanan (1857-1861) – generally considered the worst of the 19th century and a contender for the worst in the entirety of American history – and possessed of a political culture that, since the drafting of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Constitution (1787), has been more gray than grand.

“There is a cult of celebrity that is now mixed into our politics, even here in Pennsylvania,” said Michael Murphy, who teaches a course on leadership at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University. “People can now be legitimate candidates for important roles when they have no experience whatsoever in governing.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.