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Five things to watch in today’s Pennsylvania primaries

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Five things to watch in today's Pennsylvania primaries

PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania could be the most important state for both President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump in November. But now that they’ve both already secured their parties’ nominations, the most interesting primary in the Keystone State won’t make it to the ballot on Tuesday.

In Pittsburgh, Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.) the first member of the progressive ‘Squad’ to face a primary challenge this year, although a victory for her seems more than likely at this point. And in some other districts, Democrats and Republicans will choose their nominees in a potentially competitive general election.

One congressional race has already begun: the already expensive Senate race between Sen. Bob Casey, a Democrat, and Republican businessman Dave McCormick, both unopposed in their respective primaries.

There are also competitive primaries for state offices, and even the simmering presidential race could reveal something about Pennsylvania’s major suburbs. Here are five things we’re looking at tonight:

The ‘Squad’ faces its first test

Lee is the first member of the progressive ‘Squad’ to face a primary challenge this cycle, and one of the first major tests of the impact of the war between Israel and Hamas. But it may not be as daunting a challenge for Lee as it once seemed.

Lee was first elected last cycle after winning a hotly contested Democratic primary, where pro-Israel groups spent millions to oppose her. But the same groups did stayed out of her matchup with Edgewood Borough Councilor Bhavini Patel this year, even as the Israeli invasion of Gaza looms over Democratic politics and Lee was one of the first members of Congress to call for a ceasefire.

There were some external expenses. The moderate PAC, which has the backing of Republican megadonor Jeff Yass, has spent about $570,000 opposing Lee, with some ads accusing her of not sufficiently supporting Biden. But the bulk of that spending occurred earlier this spring; the group has lost just $6,000 in the past two weeks, according to the ad tracking company AdImpact, perhaps a sign that the race isn’t as competitive as the group once thought it was.

Lee was joined by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) as she campaigned in Pittsburgh last weekend. A win would be a win for progressives in Congress. But other members of the Squad, such as Reps. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), continue to face tougher challenges later on.

Republicans choose their candidates for key congressional races

Republicans will choose their candidate to take on Rep. Susan Wild (D-Pa.) in the competitive 7th Congressional District, which includes Allentown and the Lehigh Valley. Wild won by two points in 2022, a good year for Democrats in Pennsylvania.

She faces three potential challengers: state Rep. Ryan Mackenzie, National Guard veteran Kevin Dellicker, and Maria Montero, who worked in former GOP Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration. Dellicker has had a small financial lead in the race, but whoever wins the primary will have a lot of catching up to do financially, as Wild reported $2.6 million in cash earlier this month.

As Republicans look to keep the House of Representatives, they are also keeping a close eye on Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District, where Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) is facing a challenge from anti-abortion activist Mark Houck.

The 1st Congressional District includes all of swinging Bucks County and part of neighboring Montgomery County. But the incumbent’s brand is strong in the district Biden won: Fitzpatrick — a moderate who was preceded by his brother Mike in the seat — won by nearly 10 points two years ago. However, if Houck were to defeat him, it would open the door for Democrats to flip the district. Democrat Ashley Ehasz, who defeated Fitzpatrick in 2022, is running again this year.

Fitzpatrick has easily defeated primary challengers from the right several times now, and it’s not clear Houck has a better path to an upset even after Democrats tried to interfere in the primary. But Republicans will breathe easier once Fitzpatrick has secured the nomination.

Democrats will also choose their candidate against Republican Rep. Scott Perry, who won reelection in 2022 by 8 points. Perry, who has close ties to Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election, represents a central Pennsylvania district that the then-president said was barely a year in the making.

There are six Democrats on the ballot, but the top contenders appear to be former local TV news anchor Janelle Stelson, Marine Corps veteran Mike O’Brien and Harrisburg City Councilwoman Shamaine Daniels, who lost to Perry two years ago.

Presidential protest votes?

Pennsylvania is the largest and most influential presidential swing state — so even though Biden and Trump have collected well more than the number of delegates needed to secure their respective nominations, the state’s presidential primaries are worth keeping an eye on .

Both parties have zombie candidates — those who have suspended their campaigns but had already secured ballot access in future states — on the ballot.

On the Republican side, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley is the only alternative to Trump. As in other post-Super Tuesday states that voted after she ended her campaign, a strong showing by Haley in places like the Philadelphia suburbs could send warning signs about Trump’s ability to win back voters he lost during his defeat in 2020.

The Democratic race won’t be that interesting. Unlike some other states, Pennsylvania does not have the “uncommitted” ballot line — which has become a popular protest vote for those who disapprove of Biden’s handling of the war between Israel and Hamas. And the only other candidate on the ballot, Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), largely shares Biden’s policies and voted in favor of aid to Israel when it came before the House last week.

Attorney General Matchups

Perhaps the most competitive race in Pennsylvania on Tuesday is the Democratic battle for state attorney general. The position is the only office in the entire state without an incumbent this year. And it’s notable because former Pennsylvania attorneys general have a pattern of becoming governor — just look at current Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, or Corbett, a Republican.

Five Democrats are vying for the party’s nomination. State Rep. Jared Solomon of Philadelphia and Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer are the two who raised enough money to create TV ads. Both have expressed support for abortion rights. Also in the running are former state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, former Bucks County Solicitor Joe Khan and Keir Bradford-Grey, the former chief public defender in Philadelphia.

The Republican battle is between state Rep. Craig Williams of Delaware County and York County District Attorney Dave Sunday. Both have taken a tough-on-crime approach, with Williams leading a legislative Republican effort to oust Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who won the state House but was rejected by the Senate. Sunday, who is backed by the Republican Party, has touted a decline in gun violence in York County during his term.

The Northeast Philly Primaries and the Democrats’ Dilemma

State Rep. Kevin Boyle, a Democrat from Northeast Philadelphia, faces a major challenge Tuesday. His whereabouts have also been publicly unknown since last week, after police issued a warrant for his arrest, accusing him of violating a protection from abuse order. That The order was rescinded on Monday.

Boyle – who has spoken openly about his mental health struggles in the past and whose family has expressed concern for his well-being – could lose his primary. Democrats recruited a challenger, Sean Dougherty, earlier this year after an incident in which Boyle was caught on video yelling at restaurant staff. Dougherty is a former assistant attorney general who, like Boyle, comes from a well-known political family in Pennsylvania.

But there is a lingering problem for Democrats even if Boyle loses the primary. The party currently has a majority of two seats in the House of Representatives. That will likely shrink to a one-seat lead after special elections also held Tuesday in the Republican-leaning 139th House District.

Democrats have already used proxy voting to vote on Boyle’s behalf with a permanent designation of him, even though his whereabouts are unclear. (The math gets complicated because another Republican member is currently on leave from the House while deployed overseas.)

But that process, criticized by Republicans, will become less sustainable as time goes on. Democrats have proposed an investigation into Boyle’s ability to serve, which could lead to his eventual expulsion. But either way, it creates a difficult situation in the narrowly divided room – and draws even more attention to Tuesday’s game.

A version of this story first appeared in POLITICO Pro’s Morning Score newsletter. Sign up for POLITICO Pro.