Rep. Conor Lamb, D-Pa., walks down the House steps after the last vote of the week on Friday, June 25, 2021.
CNN  — 

Pennsylvania Rep. Conor Lamb entered next year’s Senate race on Friday as one of the most important and closely-watched Democratic primary contests of 2022 takes shape.

With control of a Senate split between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans hanging in the balance and history suggesting that the GOP enters 2022 with an advantage, since a first-term president’s party typically loses seats in the midterms, Democrats have no room for error. The party is on defense in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire. It is also targeting Republican-held seats in Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

But Pennsylvania, where Republican Sen. Pat Toomey is retiring, represents perhaps Democrats’ best chance at picking up a Senate seat next year. It’ll take place at the same time Pennsylvania voters choose a new governor to replace term-limited Democrat Tom Wolf, and as the state’s House delegation faces a shake-up with its ranks shrinking by one member after redistricting.

In a campaign kick-off speech Friday at a union hall in Pittsburgh, Lamb demonstrated how he would approach the general election by hammering Republicans’ willingness to entertain former President Donald Trump’s lies about election fraud.

“If they will take such a big lie and place it at the center of their party, you cannot expect them to tell the truth about anything else,” Lamb said. “They lie about the election, and they lie about your paycheck too. And your health care. They promise to give you a pay raise – they turn around and cut taxes for corporations. They promise to always protect preexisting conditions and then thy take the law that protects preexisting conditions and they try to repeal it. They spent a decade trying to repeal it.”

Several high-profile Democrats are already in the Senate contest: Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a favorite of some progressives; Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh, who is backed by EMILY’s List; and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.

Lamb, 37, enters the race with $1.8 million already in the bank and fits the mold of moderate Democrats who have been successful in the party recently.

He has won three House races in a conservative southwest Pennsylvania district. Joe Biden, then a former vice president considering his own political future, was the only national Democrat to campaign with Lamb during his first campaign, saying ahead of the 2018 special election in which Lamb won his seat that the Marine veteran and prosecutor “reminds me of my son Beau.”

Lamb later became a surrogate for Biden’s presidential campaign, and has largely followed Biden’s more centrist approach to policy – though he’s also had stand-out moments, including excoriating Republicans on the House floor following the January 6 riots at the Capitol.

As he ramped up for a Senate run, Lamb held a virtual fundraiser with West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. But Lamb has broken with Manchin on the filibuster, saying he thinks the Senate’s 60-vote threshold needs to go. Still, multiple Democratic operatives involved in the race said Lamb will find himself fending off comparisons to Manchin – which might help him appeal to independents and moderate Republicans in a general election but could be damaging with primary voters.

Fetterman has early cash lead

Fetterman, meanwhile, appears to be the race’s early front-runner. Fetterman – who endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary but said his message was to “vote blue, no matter who,” as he stayed out of the 2020 contest – is a favorite of some progressives. He has also flexed his fundraising muscles, hauling in $2.5 million in 2021’s second quarter with a total of $3 million in the bank. And with his victory in 2018, Fetterman, who entered the Senate race in February, is the only candidate who has already run and won statewide.

The bald, goateed, work-shirt-wearing, 6-foot-8 Fetterman also cuts a larger-than-life figure. He has the zip code of Braddock, the old steel town where he was mayor from 2005 to 2019, tattooed on his left forearm; on his right forearm are the dates of every homicide that took place in Braddock while he was mayor.

And he doesn’t fit neatly into a political lane. Fetterman has long been socially liberal: He performed same-sex weddings before they were legally recognized in Pennsylvania, and has long advocated the legalization of marijuana – a potential key difference with Lamb, who has supported weed’s decriminalization but not its legalization. He has pushed for a higher minimum wage. Fetterman has broken with progressives, though, by supporting fracking, saying that Democrats need to be honest about what it would take to fully transition to renewable energy.

Fetterman’s campaign argues that he is the candidate with the best chance to win statewide, pointing to donations from people in all 67 of Pennsylvania’s counties and an average contribution of $28 – which means he’ll have lots of room to turn small-dollar donors into a consistent stream of financial support throughout the race.

“People across the commonwealth are supporting John because he represents the necessary balance of electability and dependability for democratic ideals in the era of a closely divided Senate,” said Fetterman campaign spokesman Joe Calvello.

But Fetterman, 51, could be hounded throughout the race by a 2013 incident in which pulled a shotgun on an unarmed Black man who had been jogging because he believed the man had been involved in a shooting.

History-making contenders

There is also a rival for progressive support: Kenyatta, who is young at 31, Black and gay, and could draw support from Democratic voters interested in breaking barriers. The progressive Working Families Party endorsed Kenyatta; so have teachers’ unions and the LGBTQ Victory Fund.

Kenyatta endorsed Biden, served as a surrogate and was tapped as one of the party’s rising stars for a video address at the Democratic National Convention. He has also built his profile through appearances on MSNBC.

But he has struggled to be competitive in fundraising, bringing in just $500,000 in 2021’s second quarter with just $280,000 left in the bank at the quarter’s end.

Meanwhile, EMILY’s List, the powerhouse Democratic group that supports pro-choice women, endorsed Arkoosh, the chair of the board of commissioners in Montgomery County – the state’s third-largest county.

A doctor from the Philadelphia suburbs, Arkoosh, 54, could consolidate some of the support that would have gone to Reps. Madeleine Dean and Chrissy Houlahan, who both passed on the Senate race. Women make up a larger share of the Democratic primary electorate than men.

“As a physician, public health advocate, and chair of Pennsylvania’s third-largest county, Val has the experience, accomplishments, and perspective Pennsylvania Democrats are looking for,” said Ben Ray, an EMILY’s List spokesman.

The race features geographic divides, with Lamb and Fetterman – a former mayor of Braddock, just outside of Pittsburgh – both coming from western Pennsylvania, and Arkoosh and Kenyatta representing the Philadelphia region on the state’s eastern edge.

It also offers voters opportunities to make history in a state that has only ever sent White men to the Senate. Kenyatta would be Pennsylvania’s first Black and first openly gay senator. Arkoosh would be the state’s first female senator, and the first female doctor ever elected from either party to the Senate.

State Sen. Sharif Street, a 47-year-old who represents Philadelphia, is also considering a run, and like Kenyatta would become the first Black senator from the state.

The field of Republican Senate hopefuls has been slower to develop and sluggish in fundraising. Montgomery County real estate developer Jeff Bartos and former Army Ranger Sean Parnell, who lost to Lamb in a House race last year, are the best-known candidates.

Carla Sands, who was former President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Denmark, entered the race last month. Sands could appeal to Trump supporters with Bartos and Parnell already brawling over previous statements criticizing the former president.

Conservative author and pro-Trump pundit Kathy Barnette was a surprise in the most recent fundraising quarter, April through June, raising $595,000. She trailed only Bartos, who raised less from other donors but pumped $440,000 of his own money into his campaign in that period, allowing him to report about $1 million.

“Campaigns are marathons, but the Democrat candidates in Pennsylvania are already sprinting as far left as possible,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokeswoman Lizzie Litzow said. “Conor Lamb is just another extreme progressive liberal joining the other extreme progressive liberals. Lamb has voted 93% of the time with Nancy Pelosi and will be a rubber stamp for the dangerous liberal policies. The NRSC will spend every day highlighting their positions that are way out of step with the voters of Pennsylvania.”