Trump-lane Republicans may be looking for an off-ramp from their pick for Senate in Pennsylvania.
Former President Donald Trump’s favored candidate in the 2022 GOP primary, retired Army Ranger Sean Parnell, is facing abuse allegations leveled by his estranged wife in a contentious custody battle for their three children.
As Parnell awaits a judge’s ruling in the case — which played out publicly earlier this month — Republicans are floating additions to an already crowded field competing to replace retiring Sen. Pat Toomey, including the CEO of the world’s largest hedge fund and a celebrity doctor.
The uncertain situation in a premiere battleground underscores the potential fallout from an early Trump endorsement in a state that Republicans can’t afford to lose in the midterm elections.
Parnell’s court proceedings coincided with the announcement by New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu on Tuesday that he won’t run for Senate, depriving Republicans of their most sought-after recruit in another top-tier state. The two developments, coming in the same week, were unwelcome blows for a party that’s expected to have a strong chance at taking back the Senate in 2022.
Parnell, who has never held political office but ran for a House seat in 2020, became a top contender after entering the race in May. But he has spent much of his candidacy mired in his divorce and custody ordeal, and the detailed charges of abuse will be challenging to overcome in both the Republican primary and the general election against a Democrat, strategists told HuffPost.
“He’s not had an effective response besides just saying that it didn’t happen,” said Christopher Nicholas, a veteran GOP consultant in Pennsylvania.
Another veteran GOP strategist, who asked not to be named due to close ties to Parnell’s advisers, called it “top to bottom, the biggest free fall ever.”
“There’s a huge amount of negativity about Parnell right now,” that person said. “People think he’s bleeding out. They think he can’t win. There’s nothing that impressive about him. He lost a congressional race. He’s never been on the [statewide] ballot before. I don’t think Trump’s endorsement is intimidating anybody right now.”
Earlier this month, in Pittsburgh-area family court, Parnell’s estranged wife, Laurie Snell, testified that Parnell physically and emotionally abused her and, in two instances, their children, now ages 8 to 12. She is seeking full custody following their 2018 separation.
Snell testified that her husband choked her and pinned her down during fits of intense rage, and was verbally abusive.
“It just wasn’t a good relationship,” Parnell testified in an emotional and intense trial covered extensively in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Snell alleged that Parnell once kicked her out of a car along the highway when she was pregnant with their first child and screamed at her to “go get an abortion,” according to the Inquirer. In two separate instances, she accused him of physically harming their children: once striking a child and leaving a handprint welt, and another time punching a closed door, causing it to swing into a child’s face, the outlet reported.
Parnell refuted each of these episodes under oath. He testified that a photo showing a child with a handprint mark was not of his child, and that in the other instance, the child had walked into the door.
At the trial’s conclusion on Tuesday, Parnell’s campaign issued a statement to media outlets that he didn’t have anything more to say until the judge’s ruling.
“The past week has been unquestionably the most trying in my young family’s life. I love my kids, and being their father is the greatest honor I have ever had. Now that I have had the opportunity to present my case I will not have anything further to say until the judge issues his ruling,” Parnell said in the statement.
His campaign did not reply to HuffPost’s requests for comment.
Parnell’s advisers told Politico that they are optimistic he can stay viable in the race if he retains custody of his children. Trump’s team is still publicly backing Parnell and is planning a January fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida.
Parnell is staying quiet while Pennsylvania Republicans are pushing other potential frontrunners to join the race. Among them is David McCormick, the CEO of Bridgewater Associates, a massive Connecticut-based hedge fund. Republicans quoted in Politico compared McCormick, a West Point graduate and official in George W. Bush’s Treasury Department, to Glenn Youngkin, the governor-elect in Virginia and an example of a Republican achieving success while keeping Trump at arm’s length.
This week, the Washington Free Beacon reported that celebrity surgeon and TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz was hiring staffers and gearing up for a possible campaign launch. Oz became a fixture on Fox News in the early days of the pandemic, promoting dubious COVID-19 treatments and misinformation later championed by Trump.
Pennsylvania, a swing state, broke for President Joe Biden in 2020, and its Senate contest is already crammed on both sides, with two dozen declared candidates.
The Democratic field includes physician and Montgomery County commissioner Val Arkoosh, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, and Rep. Conor Lamb. On the Republican side, Parnell is running against former House candidate Kathy Barnette, real estate developer Jeff Bartos, and former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark Carla Sands.
Sands, who served under Trump, has played up her ties to the former president, but doesn’t have his official endorsement.
But that Republicans are still courting potential candidates signals to some in the GOP the shortcomings of the existing field, especially given the allegations against Parnell.
“That is clearly an indictment of Sean Parnell and Carla Sands that they’re still looking for a candidate that’s more in the Trump wing of the party,” Nicholas said, referring to McCormick and Oz.
To date, no prominent Republicans have called on Parnell to drop out, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy or wise for him to stay in, strategists said.
“The challenge for him is not what the outside world thinks, but: Are your staffers going to keep working for you? Are your consultants going to keep working for you? What about your funders? So you can say you’re in the race, but then then nobody wants to work for you and nobody returns your calls,” Nicholas said.
And of course, the accusations against Parnell haven’t gone unnoticed by his opponents. Snell requested temporary abuse protection orders in 2017 and 2018, though it wasn’t clear publicly at the time what Parnell was accused of doing and both orders were later expunged, the Inquirer reported. That didn’t stop a pro-Bartos super PAC from using them in an attack ad that sought to paint Parnell as anti-women.
“Sean’s actions and attitude toward women are disturbing, well-documented, and disqualifying,” Bartos told the Inquirer in September.
And other GOP Senate hopefuls are accused of domestic or sexual abuse. In Georgia, the ex-wife of Trump-endorsed Senate candidate Herschel Walker, the football legend and front-runner for the GOP nomination, accused him in divorce records of threatening and abusive behavior. Former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, another Senate hopeful, resigned in his first term as governor after being accused of sexual assault.
More than one in three women and one in four men experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Early on, Parnell came across as the ideal Republican nominee: a decorated war veteran who led a platoon in Afghanistan and wrote about it in a best-selling memoir before becoming a fixture on Fox News.
“They do have to have someone who’s going to appeal to a broader demographic, but that broader demographic may already be open to voting for Republicans. You can’t have a hardcore conservative. You can’t have a Josh Mandel,” said Keith Naughton, a longtime GOP strategist in Pennsylvania, referring to a far-right candidate for Senate in Ohio. “But you don’t have to have someone who’s right at that median voter point.”
Justin Barasky, a Democratic strategist and former staffer for the party’s Senate campaign arm, said Parnell is a fundamentally flawed candidate in the mold of other Republicans trying to model themselves on Trump, who has himself repeatedly been accused of sexual misconduct.
“These are the types of candidates they’re running because there’s no room for sanity in the Republican Party anymore. And almost to a person, in race after race where Republicans have primaries, the only thing that any of these people care about is fealty to Trump,” he said.