Although the 2024 elections are a full eleven months away, candidates — incumbent Democrats in particular — are having to navigate the current Israeli-Hamas war with voters in mind. And just as incumbent U.S. Senator Bob Casey (D) was trying to maneuver against his likely Republican opponent on the issue as it heated to new levels, he may have been outflanked by a member of his own party.
The entire debate intensified earlier this week after Penn President Elizabeth “Liz” Magill’s testimony Tuesday to a Congressional committee, testimony that has drawn widespread criticism.
At the hearing, Magill and other university presidents were pressed by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) as to whether a student calling for Jewish genocide would be a violation of each university’s code of conduct.
More than once, Magill answered, “If the speech becomes conduct, it can be harassment, yes.”
Stefanik was incredulous. “Conduct, meaning committing the act of genocide?” Stefanik asked.
At 5:15 Wednesday evening, Casey posted on X, “President Magill’s comments yesterday were offensive, but equally offensive was what she didn’t say. The right to free speech is fundamental, but calling for the genocide of Jews is antisemitic and harassment, full stop.”
By 5:30, however, Republican Senate candidate Dave McCormick called for Magill to step down.
Even before McCormick’s statement — and just one minute after Casey condemned Magill but stopped short of calling for her removal — State Senator Steve Santarsiero significantly raised the stakes. A Bucks County Democrat, Santarsiero also called for Magill’s resignation while adding, “I will not vote for any state funding for the university until she does so.”
Charlie Gerow, a longtime GOP consultant and pundit, said Santarsiero’s stance aligned more with McCormick, thereby painting Casey into a corner.
“At a time when strength is required and demanded, Casey has again been weak,” Gerow said.
“He hasn’t called out [U.S. Representative] Summer Lee, he’s taken a hesitant stand on Magill, and a member of his own party’s strong statement and strong position on the Penn president makes Casey’s position look even weaker,” Gerow summarized.
When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for Sen. Casey pointed to a FOX News article she said represented his position.
“Like Governor Shapiro, Senator Casey wants UPenn’s board to meet and determine whether President Magill’s comments align with the university’s values,” the story noted, attributing the quote to a Casey spokesperson.
Magill’s testimony was so problematic that Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) and the White House have both condemned her testimony. Shapiro called the testimony “failed leadership.”
The political shockwaves were so heavy that Magill posted online a walk back of her testimony, and a day later Penn’s board hastily called an emergency meeting.
Santarsiero’s district makes his stance all the more important — purple-ish Bucks County, which has widely come to be viewed as a crucial swing county. And if Magill does in fact get removed or resigns, Santarsiero’s impact on the debate diminishes Casey’s role as the commonwealth’s senior Senator.
At the Congressional hearing, members of both parties demonstrated support for the protection of Jews; yet some representatives did break down along typical party lines with calls for more funding to solve the problem.
Some candidates are offering more public support than others, all of which will inevitably come to be weighed in future elections.
Rep. Summer Lee, a Pittsburgh Democrat whose district includes the Tree of Life Synagogue which was attacked five years ago, has faced substantial criticism at home. Lee was one of ten representatives (nine of them Democrats) who voted against a bipartisan resolution “standing with Israel as it defends itself against the barbaric war launched by Hamas and other terrorists.”
A local rabbi expressed his frustration.
“I am a little disappointed that she has not been more proactive in finding the right language and forum in which to speak to and support her Jewish constituents on Israel,” Rabbi Seth Adelson told the New York Times.
The paper said Adleson’s son “has been called to active duty in the Israel Defense Forces, and he added that the division in Ms. Lee’s district — racial, religious, ethnic — over Israel and Palestine ‘is not helpful.’”
Even before Magill testified on Capitol Hill, her management of the war’s politics had come under heavy criticism from wealthy alumni who were stopping or putting on hold their donations to the university.
Those alumni were upset that Penn’s administration failed to condemn a “Palestine Writes Literature Festival” that many said crossed the lines into overt antisemitism.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at email@example.com, or use his encrypted email at firstname.lastname@example.org. @shepherdreports