All eyes were on Pennsylvania voters Tuesday. Here’s what they thought

© The Philadelphia Inquirer

Josh Shapiro, the Democratic candidate for governor in the Pennsylvania primary, on the campaign trail earlier in May. - TOM GRALISH/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — Tuesday’s primary election — one of Pennsylvania’s most consequential in recent years — brought thousands of voters to the region’s polls in an understated election day showing.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman won the Democratic Senate primary, and Josh Shapiro, the state attorney general, became the Democratic nominee for governor after running unopposed. State Sen. Doug Mastriano won the Republican nomination for governor.

By 10 p.m. Eastern time, that left the Republican race for U.S. Senate to be called, but a majority of votes were expected to be counted by the end of the night. There was a strong likelihood the biggest races could be called within hours — not days, like in November 2020 — of polls closing.

With both a Senate seat and the governor’s office up for grabs in 2022, the primary election was being closely watched not just in Pennsylvania but nationwide. Across the region, voters in both parties said they saw the primary as high stakes for a nation in turmoil, and the races seemed like referenda on the parties’ directions.

The GOP primaries in particular — which included candidates who denied the reality that Joe Biden won the 2020 election and pursued former President Donald Trump’s endorsement — were seen by onlookers as a potential judgment on Trumpism at a pivotal point for American democracy.

Many Republican voters framed their choices Tuesday around Trump’s endorsements, some aligning with him and others hoping to push the party in a different direction. And many Democrats hoped to pick the Senate candidate most likely to defeat a Republican opponent — and potentially preserve a Democratic majority in the Senate — come November.

That was true from East Falls — where Democrat Elizabeth Conard, 29, summed up her top concerns as “reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, racial equality” — to Brookhaven — where Republican Vince Dean, 65, was concerned with “limited government,” restricting abortion and curbing immigration.

Two Democratic candidates voted by emergency absentee ballot and missed the chance to appear in public Tuesday: Shapiro, who tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday night, and Senate front-runner Fetterman, who remained hospitalized four days after suffering a stroke. His campaign has said he will make a full recovery.

At many polling places around the Philadelphia region, in-person turnout seemed low or middling. By late afternoon, most mail ballots had already been counted in several major counties, including Philadelphia, Montgomery and Allegheny. Officials in several others, including Bucks and Delaware, expected to have their counts done by the end of the night.

No major problems were reported, though the state saw a few hiccups, as is typical: In Berks County, issues caused elections officials to ditch a rollout of new electronic poll books and switch to traditional paper books, which they had ready as backup. In Lancaster County, elections officials discovered an error on 22,000 mail ballots that meant they could not be scanned and will have to be hand-marked, a multiday process.

“The election today was successful with minimal issues,” acting Secretary of State Leigh M. Chapman said at a 9 p.m. ET news conference. The state’s voter hot line fielded 1,200 calls, mainly for routine issues such as polling places opening late or precincts running low on ballots.

By the evening, traffic was light at some polling places. At McCall Elementary School in Center City, Sheri Feinberg, a teacher, said she had such a long day at work that she considered not voting at all.

“But then I thought, ‘if everyone had that attitude ... ’” said Feinberg, 50. “I feel voting is super important. If people don’t vote, they can’t complain.”

All eyes were on the GOP Senate primary Tuesday night, which remained a tight race up to election day. The race among celebrity surgeon Mehmet Oz, Army veteran and former hedge fund CEO David McCormick, and conservative commentator Kathy Barnette was hotly contested.

Mastriano, who had held a double-digit lead in polling and was endorsed by Trump, won the Republican nomination for governor despite a late effort by some Republicans to coalesce around former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta. (That effort was rejected by former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain and former Delaware County Councilman Dave White, who also remained in the race.)

There was little consensus on either race among Republican voters interviewed in the Philadelphia region and in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Many said the economy, inflation, and high gas prices were among the most important issues.

Not on the ballot but nevertheless on voters’ minds was Trump, who endorsed Oz for Senate and Mastriano for governor. Some GOP voters said they’d waited for his opinion — like 78-year-old R.J. Lucas, who based his vote almost solely on one thing:

“I’m a Trump guy,” Lucas said, after voting in Broomall.

Carol Batis, 66, of Plum Borough, Allegheny County, also decided on Oz and Mastriano because Trump endorsed them.

“To tell you the truth,” said Batis, a former Democrat who switched parties to support Trump, “I’m gonna go with anybody who is endorsed by Trump, because I believe in what he did for the country.”

But other Republicans said they used Trump’s guidance — to vote against it.

“I’m not gonna take any of Trump’s recommendations,” said Michael Armanious, a 38-year-old physician from Fishtown. Armanious chose McSwain and Barnette, whom he called “a true conservative.”

Similarly, Stan Whiteman, a small-business owner in Allegheny County, said he was looking for “a constitutional conservative” who was unequivocally anti-abortion. A Trump supporter, he wanted to follow the endorsement for Oz, but chose McCormick at the last minute.

Meanwhile, self-described conservative Bill Leutwyler, 65, of Holland, in Bucks County, cited concerns that many in his party have gone “too far right,” ignoring Trump to choose McCormick and McSwain.

And in Clifton Heights, John Crawford, 76, said he had considered changing his registration, as his wife did, from Republican to Democrat after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Instead, he decided to remain a Republican so he could vote against candidates endorsed by Trump in primary elections.

“I’m voting against Oz,” said Crawford — he chose Barnette — and “in the fall, I’m voting for Fetterman.”

Democrats, too, said they were partially motivated by a desire to vote against Trumpian ideals.

“I just don’t believe there are two parties anymore,” said Tom Capalbo, 61, of Wallingford. “The Democrats are the only ones who haven’t lost their minds.”

For Democrats Jim and Cindy Meyer, the choice seemed equally simple: Asked what their top issue was, Jim Meyer said: “Sanity.” Added Cindy Meyer, “Not Trump.”

For Democrats, the Senate primary was seen as a test of the party’s direction, with voters choosing among Fetterman, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor and an anti-establishment progressive; U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, a moderate in the mold of President Joe Biden; and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, a progressive who would be the state’s first Black and first openly gay senator.

The answer came swiftly Tuesday night: The Associated Press called the race for Fetterman just under an hour after polls closed.

The results, Lamb told reporters earlier Tuesday, would be something of a referendum on “which way the party wants to move.” Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, called the race one “that could decide the future of our country.”

Kenyatta, who had lagged in polls, told reporters after voting in North Philadelphia that he thought his campaign would show evidence of “a real movement all across the commonwealth.” Some Philadelphians, casting ballots for him, praised his community roots and said they wanted a Black person to represent Pennsylvania in the Senate.

Many liberal voters cited racial justice, abortion rights and other human rights issues as their top concerns. But most appeared divided about who would make a more formidable opponent to the Republican candidate in November.

Some were persuaded by Lamb’s moderate approach and his previous victories in competitive House districts.

“I think he’s reasonable, civilized,” said Shelly Hewitt, a 77-year-old retiree in Center City. “I think he understands the seriousness of our situation in American politics and would earnestly want to accomplish something to moderate it.”

Fetterman supporters saw it the opposite way, believing he had the better chance to win over GOP voters.

“I think he can win with Kentucky-Pennsylvania voters. I think he’ll have the best chance in November of swaying the other side,” said Rosa Mykyta-Chomsky, 25, voting at West Philadelphia High School.

A few Fetterman supporters, though, said they’d switched to Lamb or Kenyatta after Fetterman’s stroke. His campaign has said that Fetterman will make a full recovery and that he suffered no cognitive damage, but has not made doctors available for interviews. On Tuesday afternoon, Fetterman had a pacemaker with a defibrillator implanted at Lancaster General Hospital.

Gisele Fetterman said she and her husband were confident that voters would choose him in the primary, but didn’t know how soon he would be able to return to the campaign trail if that happened.

Voters were aware of the stakes of the Senate race: In University City, Charles and Helene Miller, for instance, said keeping a Democratic majority in the Senate was more important than many of the individual issues.

“I feel,” said Miller, “like we’re hanging on by our fingernails here.”

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(Inquirer staff writers Aubrey Whelan, Cassie Owens, Jonathan Lai, Juliana Feliciano Reyes, Kristen A. Graham, Maddie Hanna, Stephanie Farr, Rodrigo Torrejón, Jeff Gammage, Julia Terruso, Max Marin, Ryan W. Briggs, Astrid Rodrigues and Anthony R. Wood contributed to this article.)

Republican U.S. Senate primary candidate Kathy Barnette speaks at Montgomery County's 2022 High School Enlistee Recognition Ceremony at the Pinecrest Country Club in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, on May 9, 2022. - Tom Gralish/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS
Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano speaks during a campaign rally at The Fuge on May 14, 2022, in Warminster, Pennsylvania. - Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images North America/TNS
John Fetterman during the U.S. Senate candidates debate at Dickinson College on April 25, 2022, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. - TOM GRALISH/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS