By Michael Warren and Sara Murray, CNN
Updated: Sun, 24 Oct 2021 12:00:26 GMT
Sean Parnell may have the backing of former President Donald Trump, but the Pennsylvania Republican also has significant personal baggage that is raising concerns about the GOP's ability to hold one of the most competitive Senate seats in the country next year.
A rival Republican candidate has revealed details about Parnell's ongoing and messy divorce and custody cases, part of an increasingly ugly GOP primary in the Keystone State that is giving Republicans in both Washington and Pennsylvania pause. While it is unclear what Parnell's estranged wife had alleged about him, documents showed she was granted two protective orders against him, though they were later expunged. But the news coverage in local papers of the revelations are prompting party leaders to privately question Trump's choice to succeed retiring Sen. Pat Toomey in one of Democrats' top-targeted seats.
As the 2022 midterm primaries approach, Trump is using the sway of his endorsement to reshape the party in his image, backing challengers to Republican incumbents who cross him or rewarding the most loyal candidates with his blessing. But questions around some of his chosen candidates -- both their alleged pasts and their ability to clear the field in primaries -- suggest there may be limits to the Trump effect.
And Parnell isn't the only Trump-backed candidate facing scrutiny about his troubled past, with Senate candidate Herschel Walker of Georgia also having to address questions about his alleged past behavior.
The Republican establishment, meanwhile, is raising concerns that the party apparatus is too willing to accept Trump's chosen candidates, particularly when those candidates risk damaging the GOP's ability to win key races to building majorities in Congress.
CNN has learned that multiple GOP senators and donors are asking Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the powerful chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, about why his political consultants are also working with Parnell in the primary, according to three Republicans with knowledge of those conversations. The consultants in question hail from OnMessage, a campaign strategy firm who count Scott and Parnell among their many Republican clients.
And now, at least one additional credible Republican is considering entering the already crowded primary, three Republican sources familiar with the field tell CNN, because of concern about Parnell.
"His failure to coalesce party officials or party activists behind him is not a good sign. That should have happened already," said one Pennsylvania-based Republican operative who is unaligned in the Senate race. "Parnell has not locked up the race."
Asked about the conversations between the concerned Republicans and Scott, Chris Hartline, a spokesman for the NRSC said the committee does not get involved in primaries.
"The voters of Pennsylvania get to choose their nominee," said Hartline.
Curt Anderson, a founding partner at OnMessage, told CNN he had not heard about questions from senators and donors about the firm's work for Parnell and called them "silly."
"What a joke," Anderson said.
A Parnell campaign spokesman declined to comment for this story but did provide a statement of support from Donald Trump Jr.
"Pennsylvanians are sick and tired of the politics of personal destruction and can see right through the smears and grotesque attempts to tear down this amazing American war hero and his family," Trump Jr.'s statement read in part.
A messy legal fight
A retired Army Ranger and combat veteran with a Purple Heart, Parnell has been a prominent figure in conservative media after publishing his 2012 memoir about his Afghanistan War experience. He ran unsuccessfully for a congressional seat outside of Pittsburgh in 2020 and spoke that year at the Republican National Convention.
Despite losing his House race, Parnell's frequent appearances on Fox News and his close friendship with the Trump family, particularly with Don Jr., positioned him to run for the Senate once Toomey announced his retirement.
The problems for Parnell began just after Trump endorsed him on September 1.
Within a week, Jeff Bartos, a rival Republican candidate, published on a campaign website summary reports from the Butler County sheriff's office showing that Parnell's wife, who now goes by Laurie Snell, was granted two protection-from-abuse orders against him, in 2017 and 2018.
The attack from the Bartos campaign thrust this ongoing legal fight into the open, overshadowing the Trump endorsement and dominating local coverage of the Senate race ever since.
In Butler County, such orders are granted without the other party present on a temporary basis until a hearing with both parties takes place, according to the county sheriff's office. Those who seek protection must be close family or intimate partners who claim to have been abused or threatened with such abuse.
A Butler County deputy sheriff confirmed to CNN the authenticity of the documents posted on Bartos's website, which indicate that in both instances, Parnell was required to relinquish his firearms. In the case of the 2017 order, he was also required to the leave the house he shared with Snell. The documents indicate Parnell complied both times. In each instance, the protective orders only last for a few days each.
It is unknown based on available court records what alleged actions or threats prompted Snell to seek the protective orders, and the orders and underlying documents were later expunged. It is also unknown when and why this happened, although Pennsylvania case law suggests defendants can seek expungement if no permanent order was granted or if the alleged victim withdraws their petition for protection.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the Parnell campaign provided the newspaper with documents that demonstrated Snell withdrew the 2017 protective order as part of an agreement with Parnell. The paper also reported a judge declined to grant a full protection order following the 2018 order. Parnell's campaign did not respond to a request from CNN to see these documents.
A lawyer for Snell did not say what prompted her to seek protection from abuse but told CNN she was "relieved that these filings resulted in Mr. Parnell continuing to be excluded from the home where she and their children have resided since 2018. My client's main focus remains the best interests of their three children."
Bartos, meanwhile, has claimed the existence of the protection orders made Parnell unelectable.
Articles about Bartos's publicization of the documents in the Inquirer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Associated Press included similar statements from Snell's attorney as well as other details, including the date of the start of the upcoming child custody trial. Those articles prompted Parnell in mid-September to request the court seal the records in the trial and place a gag order on Snell from discussing the protective orders in public, according to court filings obtained by CNN.
In those same court filings, Snell's legal team argues Parnell raised the issue of the PFAs by telling the Inquirer in September about his failed attempt to get a protective order against his wife in 2018 after she sought and was later granted her own order.
The judge denied Parnell's gag order request and only partially sealed the upcoming custody trial, according to a court filing obtained by CNN.
It's unclear whether Trump and his political team were aware of the legal fight when he endorsed Parnell. When asked by CNN, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich did not answer directly, though he claimed that Parnell, who Trump Jr. had endorsed months earlier, received the endorsement after "careful consideration."
"President Trump delivers the most sought after endorsement in politics after careful consideration of all the candidates," said Budowich. "Sean raised more money from donors this past quarter than all of the other Republican candidates in the race combined and is on his way to a landslide victory in the primary and then in the general election."
Despite Trump's confidence in Parnell, fears persist among other Republicans who spoke to CNN that more embarrassing details could emerge out of the custody trial or if Snell decides to discuss the protective orders publicly. That could provide Parnell's GOP rivals like Bartos and Carla Sands, Trump's former ambassador to Denmark, who has poured significant personal resources into her campaign, more fodder for attacks against the Trump-backed candidate.
And the reports have left some Republicans uneasy about Parnell's image. One worry is that Parnell wins the party's nomination but is left weakened in the general election, particularly if Democrats can make a case that Parnell's personal problems reflect a trend with certain GOP candidates.
Multiple women, for example, have accused Herschel Walker of threatening them, the latest of which Walker's campaign declined to comment on.
And Eric Greitens, who is running for Senate in Missouri in a competitive primary, stepped down as governor in 2018 after revelations of a 2015 affair with a woman who testified under oath to state lawmakers that she felt forced into sexual acts by him and that he had threatened to release explicit photos of her if she revealed their relationship. Greitens admitted to the affair, but denied ever engaging in blackmail, coercion or acts of sexual violence. Greitens has since claimed he was "exonerated" after an investigator in his case was charged with perjury and evidence tampering, and he has called the allegations part of a "political witch hunt."
Trump has not yet endorsed in the Missouri Senate race, but Greitens has hired and has the backing of several people close to Trump.
Trump's endorsement record
While his position in the party remains unparalleled, Trump has a mixed record on endorsements.
Early in his presidency, he backed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in a special election primary in Alabama in 2017, only to see Roy Moore win the Republican nomination. Moore got the Trump endorsement for the general election but failed to win against Democrat Doug Jones amid allegations against Moore of child molestation and sexual assault. Moore denied those allegations.
Trump's endorsed candidates in Senate, House and gubernatorial races were much more successful in regular primary elections, though his endorsements sometimes came late in the process, when an obvious winner was clear.
Nevertheless, in 2018 Trump helped boost GOP gubernatorial candidates Ron DeSantis in Florida and Brian Kemp in Georgia, as well as Senate candidate Bill Hagerty in Tennessee in 2020, through tough primaries.
But since Trump lost in 2020 and after January 6, it's been an open question whether he still has the same pull in inter-Republican contests. In two House special election fights between Republicans in 2021 in Ohio and Texas, Trump's chosen candidates won the former and lost the latter.
Republicans are still unsure how that portends for the 2022 midterms. But while Trump has set the field in the Georgia Senate race with Walker, Parnell's struggles to leave the pack behind in Pennsylvania are a trend, too.
In North Carolina, Trump endorsed Rep. Ted Budd for that state's open Senate seat in June. But former Gov. Pat McCrory remains competitive in the Republican primary, matching Budd in their most recent fundraising hauls of just over $1 million each in the third quarter.
Elsewhere, the Trump-backed Senate candidate Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama trails his fellow Republican Katie Boyd Britt in fundraising. And Kelly Tshibaka, the Republican candidate Trump has endorsed in Alaska, raised far less than incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who is expected to run for reelection.
"Trump's GOP Senate endorsement strategy seems to be all about the past and the lost 2020 election," said Scott Reed, a veteran GOP strategist and the former political director at the US Chamber of Commerce. "Politics is about the future and his endorsements are not clearing the field at all."