Harrisburg, Pa. (The Hill) — The candidates in Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary race met face-to-face in a one-hour debate hosted by The Hill’s partners at ABC27 News and WPXI.
The hour-long forum saw sparks fly over an array of issues including the economy, crime, the war in Ukraine, fracking and mask mandates ahead of the May 17 primary.
Here are five takeaways from Thursday’s Pennsylvania Democratic Senate primary debate.
Lamb, Kenyatta take aim at Fetterman
The frontrunner in the race, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), predictably faced a barrage of attacks from Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D).
Fetterman has led the intraparty contest in polling and fundraising. A Franklin-Marshall poll released earlier this month showed Fetterman with 41 percent support, while Lamb and Kenyatta trailed at 17 percent and four percent, respectively. Another 37 percent said they were either undecided or favored someone else.
Lamb landed the first attack on Fetterman, criticizing him for not being specific enough about which income brackets should see tax hikes.
“The answer that you know it when you see it is not acceptable for this job,” Lamb said.
Meanwhile, Kenyatta hit Fetterman for not attending the last debate, saying, “It’s very rare we get to see John at an event.”
Kenyatta also launched one of the more personal attacks of the evening when the lieutenant governor was asked about a 2013 incident in which Fetterman, while carrying a shotgun, confronted an unarmed Black jogger he suspected was involved in nearby gunfire and detained him until police arrived. Fetterman has denied pointing the shotgun at the man.
“For somebody who has cut an image as such a tough guy, you’re so afraid of two little words: ‘I’m sorry,’” Kenyatta said.
When pressed by Kenyatta to apologize, Fetterman said “that never happened.”
Fetterman’s campaign brushed off the attacks in a post-debate interview with The Hill.
“I think his opponents were desperate to change the dynamics of the race,” said Fetterman’s senior adviser Rebecca Katz.
Candidates embrace Biden despite dismal polls
All three candidates embraced President Biden despite his low approval and favorability ratings. When asked to give Biden a grade, Fetterman and Lamb gave him a B+, while Kenyatta gave him an A-.
Lamb, who has sought to mold himself in Biden’s centrist mold, cited a campaign story with the president in which he talked about getting to know voters on the trail.
Kenyatta and Fetterman argued that they would have given Biden a higher grade if it were not for Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has proven to be a thorn in the administration’s side. Manchin’s opposition effectively sunk Biden’s Build Back Better agenda.
Fetterman also used Manchin to attack Lamb, calling the senator Lamb’s “mentor.” Lamb, in turn, fired back, saying that he supports Biden’s agenda, including Build Back Better.
The candidates’ embrace of the president challenges speculation that Democrats running in tough races will distance themselves from Biden. A WTAJ/Emerson College Polling/The Hill poll released in late March found that 50.4% of Pennsylvania voters do not approve of the job Biden has done so far in his first term. The Real Clear Politics polling average shows Biden’s average approval rating at 41 percent in national polling, while his disapproval sits at 53 percent.
Candidates split on hot button issues
The candidates were split on a number of contentious issues, including health care, crime and immigration.
Lamb and Fetterman said they would support extending Title 42, the Trump-era policy that allows for the rapid expulsion of migrants at the border without giving them an opportunity to seek asylum. The two both said the plan should remain in place until the coronavirus pandemic is over. Kenyatta, on the other hand, argued that Title 42 should not be extended.
On the issue of the war in Ukraine, Fetterman and Kenyatta both said they did not see a situation in which it would be appropriate to send U.S. troops into Ukraine. But Lamb said an attack on a member of NATO would be the line for him when asked about sending troops to Ukraine.
Candidates address crime as Democrats struggle over issue
All three Democrats were asked about rising crime and gun violence as national Democrats struggle to address the issue. The candidates homed in on gun control, in particular, a strategy national Democrats have touted as an effort to combat violent crime.
Kenyatta made the issue personal, explaining how crime impacted his own community in Philadelphia.
“What’s heartbreaking for me is I can go home tonight to North Philly and have another person gunned down in my neighborhood,” Kenyatta said. “This has been the core of my campaign.”
Lamb called for more background checks on firearms and for funds to be shifted from drug law enforcement to efforts combatting illegal gun distribution.
Meanwhile, Fetterman called for an end to the Senate filibuster in an effort to pass gun reform.
Candidates split over mask mandates as Philadelphia lifts its own
There was also a divide on stage when it came to the issue of whether to implement mask mandates at this stage in the pandemic. During the debate, Philadelphia announced that it was ending its indoor mask mandate only days after announcing the measure would be reinstated.
Fetterman said he did not agree with Philadelphia reimposing its mask mandate, but said the city has a right to do so as a locality.
“At this point, we have to live with this virus and I don’t believe that going backward with a mask mandate or closures is appropriate,” Fetterman said.
Kenyatta, who is arguably the most progressive of the candidates, said he also opposed the mandate. However, Lamb said he was in favor of the measure.
“I mean it’s their right to do it,” the congressman said. “Again, I think they’re doing it for the right reason. I don’t enjoy it but they did the best they could.”
Nationally, the issue of mask mandates stands to be a big one for Democrats as Republicans seek to tie them to the restrictions. On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced it would appeal a federal judge’s ruling that struck down the Biden administration’s mask mandate on public transportation.