When John Fetterman arrived at the Pennsylvania State Capitol on January 5, 2021, a crowd of hundreds of political discontents had gathered beneath his balcony. As the capital of the commonwealth, demonstrations are not an unfamiliar occurrence in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. But as Fetterman, the Democratic lieutenant governor, put it, there was “an edge and an anger” to the protest that morning. It was fertile ground for Donald Trump’s “big lie”; chants of “Stop the Steal” and jeers of “you rigged it” garnished the disordered display. What Fetterman didn’t expect was to be met by that same energy once he walked into the capitol.

It was the first session of the Pennsylvania State Senate in the New Year, and on the day’s agenda was to swear in newly elected and reelected members. More pomp than circumstance, Fetterman likened the exercise to a political “picture day” (“no one wants to ruin picture day,” he noted). Yet, Republicans—who have held the majority in both chambers of the Pennsylvania legislature for more than a decade—did just that when they refused to seat Democrat Jim Brewster, who had won reelection to the State Senate in a closely contested race. Fetterman, in his capacity as president of the Senate, pleaded with the Republican leadership to swear in Brewster but, in a troubling denouement, Republicans voted to oust Fetterman from the chamber.

Reflecting on that day one year later, Fetterman still couldn’t believe that it happened, but also said he was relieved that the scene in Harrisburg didn’t devolve into violence. In many ways, the spectacle in Harrisburg on the fifth of January was a harbinger not only of the attack the following day on the U.S. Capitol, but also the ongoing attempts by the Republican Party to subvert the democratic process and pave the way for a potential Donald Trump victory in 2024. Pennsylvania is poised to become an even bloodier battleground in the next presidential contest. And the contours of that all-but-certain fight will be determined by the 2022 election cycle.

The state has already garnered national attention ahead of the midterms, with outsize focus on the race to take outgoing senator Pat Toomey’s seat—particularly as the Republican primary field fills out with the likes of television personality Mehmet Oz and David McCormick, who has surrounded himself with prominent Trumpworld operatives—but the importance of the 2022 election in the state goes beyond control of the Senate. With Democratic governor Tom Wolf termed-out, the gubernatorial race is critically important. It will not only dictate control of the executive, but the lieutenant governor and, perhaps most importantly, the secretary of state—which oversees elections in the commonwealth—potentially becoming, in our new reality, the final line between ensuring a free and fair election, and subverting it. Beyond that, with current Pennsylvania attorney general Josh Shapiro in the race for governor, his successor will be appointed by whomever wins the gubernatorial bid to finish out the remainder of Shapiro’s term.

“I think 2022 will be the first election where we’re starting to see the consequences of the division that we’ve seen around election integrity and around efforts to undermine confidence in our democracy,” former Philadelphia city commissioner Al Schmidt told me. “I would have thought, or thought at the time, that things would have been better by now. And if anything, they’re every bit as bad—if not worse.” Schmidt, a Republican, drew the ire of Trump and members of his party when he voted to certify the 2020 election results, amid baseless allegations of voter fraud in Pennsylvania. Now, Schmidt says, “The big question that is unanswered is whether our system of government was saved in 2020 by the strength of our institutions or by a dozen or two people in critical positions throughout the country.”

That is a question Democrats in Pennsylvania don’t want to have to answer. “Everything that’s happened since 2020, the election and Joe Biden taking office, the GOP’s plan is really just a rematch in 2024. Everything they’re doing is a methodical march and setting the table for 2024, for Trump’s second term,” Fetterman lamented. “I don’t think enough attention has been given to just how impossibly close this election was. You had three states—Arizona, Wisconsin, and Georgia—decided by about 45,000 votes.… If those would’ve dropped a different way, and they very easily could’ve, you would’ve had a 269 Electoral College tie, and it would’ve all come down on Pennsylvania, and you know how contentious and how crazy it was in Pennsylvania.”

Some Democrats see a worst-case scenario on the ballot. With the Biden–backed voting rights legislation stalled at the federal level, and 2020 serving as a portent of what’s to come, Pennsylvania Democrats are bracing for another political brawl in their own backyard. Republicans are still expected to hold the majority in both the Pennsylvania House and Senate in 2022, if by a smaller margin, should new legislative maps—currently in a preliminary redistricting stage—be officially approved. If Democrats lose the governor’s mansion they will have no real ability to block draconian legislation and the further erosion of voting protections. Not to mention, should the 2024 presidential race be a repeat of 2020, Democrats fear that Republicans, beholden to “the big lie,” would subvert any election results that don’t go their way.

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