The state and national media are full of stories about the 2022 Pennsylvania primary election even though it won’t happen for more than a year.[i] Just a few weeks ago, the national news organization Politico
published an in-depth profile about Pennsylvania Lt. Governor John Fetterman’s pursuit of the Democratic nomination for the US Senate [ii], which was preceded by similar reporting and profiles in other outlets
This interest makes sense since the state’s US Senate seat will be pivotal in determining which party controls the Senate. Heightened media interest also makes sense since no incumbent is running; the state has had only three open-seat US Senate races since 1970 and this is the first open-seat race in Pennsylvania since 1991.[iii]
The interest in this race goes beyond the media–it is already drawing a large field of interested candidates, which is not unusual for open-seat races. Since 1970, the largest field of Republicans to run in a US Senate primary was eight in 1980 and six in 1976, both open-seat races. The largest field of Democrats to run for US Senate was eight in 1980 and six in 2000. The 1980 US Senate race, an open seat created by Senator Richard Schweiker’s retirement, had the largest primary field in recent history, with 16 total candidates. The 2000 Democratic primary, though not an open seat, attracted a lot of interest because it was Senator Santorum’s first re-election race.
Multi-candidate Senate races tend to produce plurality, not majority, winners. The winning candidate’s vote share for the Republican victor in 1980, Arlen Specter, was 36.4% and it was only 37.8% for John Heinz in 1976. The Democratic victor in 1980, Pete Flaherty, did achieve a majority vote share (53.3%), but Ron Klink, the victor in the 2000 race, won only 40.7% of the vote.
The circumstances and implications of the US Senate race are notable, but the fact that the state’s voters are also choosing their gubernatorial candidates makes the 2022 primaries historically unique. Since 1968, when Pennsylvania’s constitution was changed to allow governors to serve two terms, the state has never had open-seat races for governor and US Senate in the same election cycle.
Since 1970, the largest field of Republicans in a gubernatorial primary was six in 1978 and five in 1994. The largest field of Democratic gubernatorial candidates was seven in 1994 and six in 1970. As is true in the Senate primaries, multi-candidate races in gubernatorial primaries also tend to produce winners who capture less than 50% of the vote. The winning candidate’s vote share for the Republican gubernatorial primary in 1978, Dick Thornburgh, was 34.3% and in 1994 Tom Ridge received 34.6% of the vote. The Democratic gubernatorial winner’s share was 31.2% in 1994 for Mark Singel and was 57.6% for Milton Shapp in 1970. The 1994 gubernatorial race, an open seat to replace term-limited Governor Robert Casey, drew the most candidates (12 from both parties) in the modern era.
The unique circumstance of having two high-profile open-seat races guarantees that a large field of candidates will be running for office in the 2022 primary elections, and also suggests that the victorious candidates will win their primaries with less than 50% of the vote. This creates the opportunity for a candidate with a well-executed regional strategy to succeed.