Five takeaways from the Pennsylvania primaries


Voters went to the polls for the Pennsylvania primaries on Tuesday, cementing races up and down the ticket in what will be one of the critical swing states in November.

President Biden and Donald Trump glided to victory in their respective contests, as expected, though both men faced protest votes. The Keystone State is one of the seven major battlegrounds that will decide who wins the Oval Office on Nov. 5.

Pennsylvania will also be the site of one of the most closely watched Senate races in the fall, as Republican David McCormick, who scored Trump’s backing despite past friction with the former president, looks to unseat Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.)

Meanwhile, Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.), a staunch progressive who has been critical of Israel’s war against Hamas, managed to fend off a primary challenge from the center in an important victory for the left.

Here are five major takeaways from Tuesday night’s primaries.

It’s game on for Biden and Trump in the Keystone State

Biden and Trump were all but ensured to win their respective primaries on Tuesday night. Still, their victories serve as a starting gun of sorts in what will be a critical state for both men as they look to win the White House.

Trump currently leads Biden in Pennsylvania by a sliver, at 47 to 46 percent, according to an aggregate of polls from Decision Desk HQ and The Hill.  

In a sign of how important the Keystone State is in the presidential race, Biden took part in a three-city tour there just a week ago, visiting his birthplace of Scranton, where he pitched his tax plan to blue-collar workers, before stopping in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

Trump, meanwhile, held a rally in Schnecksville, Pa., earlier this month, just two days before he was set to go on trial in a case involving alleged hush money payments to a porn star.

Their dueling visits underscore the significance of Pennsylvania, which went for Biden in 2020 by roughly 1 percentage point.

If the polls are any indication, the race this year will be another squeaker.

A sleepy start to a crucial Senate race

McCormick’s expected victory in the GOP Senate primary solidifies his matchup with Casey, the Democratic incumbent, in a race that could determine who controls the upper chamber next year.

Republicans lost out on a potential pickup in the Keystone State last cycle when Sen. John Fetterman (D) defeated Trump-backed Mehmet Oz, who had won out over McCormick in the primary.

Now, the GOP is hoping the more establishment-aligned McCormick will give them a boost in a state that has so far slipped through their fingers when it has come to major races. In a sign of the party’s readiness to coalesce around a candidate, Trump himself backed McCormick just a couple weeks ago despite some bad blood between the two men.

Casey currently leads McCormick 46 to 37 percent, according to an aggregate of polls from Decision Desk HQ and The Hill.

Republicans acknowledge the uphill climb their candidate faces but remain optimistic that he can prevail despite Casey’s name recognition — the Democrat’s father, Bob Casey Sr., was a two-time governor of the Keystone State.

Progressives have staying power

The left wing has faced persistent questions about its near-term future after many Democrats took issue with progressives’ stance towards the Israel-Hamas conflict. 

Lee, who on Tuesday easily defended her seat against Bhavini Patel, a moderate councilmember from Edgewood, in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District, rebuked the theory that progressive officeholders are among the most vulnerable this cycle. 

Her primary victory was, in fact, stronger than her first congressional race, when she barely won against a wave of attacks from special interest groups who spent millions to defeat her. Unlike in that race, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and aligned organizations did not significantly wade into Tuesday’s contest. 

Lee brought in thousands of small dollar donations and ultimately amassed $2.5 million, the campaign reported on primary day. 

Her win was a success for the grassroots model of campaigning that progressives have popularized within the House, sending unlikely candidates to office and protecting liberal incumbents who Democrats insisted were on shaky standing. 

It also gave a much-needed energy jolt to the left flank of the party, which has pushed back against centrists who say they have been unhelpful — or downright harmful — to Biden’s first term agenda and his position around the Middle East.

Protest votes underscore dissatisfaction with Biden, Trump 

In a cycle where voters don’t love what’s in front of them, observers were watching closely to see how many protest votes were cast for both Biden and Trump.

Because vote counting on Tuesday did not include the number of “uncommitted” votes, it might be some time before the number of protest ballots cast in the Democratic primary becomes clear. A relatively small number of votes were also cast for Biden’s former primary challenger, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.).

What was more evident were signs of apparent discontent on the GOP side. Nikki Haley, who dropped out of the Republican primary earlier this year and has yet to endorse Trump, had garnered a vote share in the double digits as of Tuesday night.

While that number didn’t impact Trump’s victory on Tuesday, it could indicate some potential problems for the former president in November.

Pennsylvania is one of the top swing states this cycle, with both Biden and Trump factoring it into their calculations as part of their paths to 270. And in a state where Biden beat his rival in 2020 by roughly a percentage point, every vote counts — suggesting Trump’s allies might have reason to worry that Haley supporters could vote against him or sit out the election entirely.

Biden fared much better than Trump in his respective primary on Tuesday, earning the vast majority — 94.8 percent — of support over Phillips, a fellow moderate. But Phillips’ 5.2 percent should not go unnoticed. The slim number represents a broader problem for Biden — that a chunk of his own Democratic base, including centrists, do not want to see him reelected. 

While the breakdown of the uncommitted faction is still being determined, the fact that Pennsylvania voters are willing to put forward protest votes in each major party could spell trouble for both presumptive nominees angling for the White House with little fanfare.

Incumbents have a good night

There was some speculation heading into Tuesday that incumbents in both parties could get the boot.

That didn’t happen.

The most high-profile example was the progressive Lee, who easily fended off a challenge from the center of her party.

But Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick also faced a notable primary challenger, in this case from a hardliner in his party.

Anti-abortion activist Matt Houck was looking to unseat the moderate incumbent, a former FBI agent who represents a suburban county outside Philadelphia.

Ultimately, it wasn’t even really a contest: Fitzpatrick glided to victory in a district that would have become far more competitive in November had Houck won. The Cook Political Report currently has Fitzpatrick’s seat as “likely Republican,” meaning Democrats face a steep climb in flipping it come November.

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