Two Penn affiliates are considering running for a seat in the United States Senate in 2022.
After Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) announced he would not be running for reelection after his current term, it opened the door for many others to consider a possible campaign — including Wharton Legal Studies and Business Ethics professor Eric Orts and Penn graduate Kenneth Braithwaite.
While neither Orts nor Braithwaite have launched an official campaign to succeed Toomey, both are currently exploring the possibility of running for federal office.
Orts announced that he formed a Senate exploratory committee for the Democratic nomination during an interview on the Michael Smerconish Program in mid-December.
The exploratory process includes asking many questions regarding whether one has name recognition, if funding a campaign is practical, and comparing what strengths you have over other potential candidates, Orts said to The Daily Pennsylvanian. He added that he has always had an interest in politics, recalling an annual New Years tradition with his wife where they reflect on what they would do if they knew they could not fail.
“The answer flashed into my mind sometime after the 2016 election,” Orts told the DP. “If I knew I could not fail, I would run against Pat Toomey for U.S. Senate for Pennsylvania and win because I really wanted him to be gone.”
Before officially deciding whether or not to run, Orts said he has been checking in with friends, family, and colleagues — including having previously consulted with President Joe Biden in 2017 and more recently with former Pennsylvania Gov. and Penn instructor Ed Rendell — to assess if running for Senate would be a feasible decision for him. He added that he has also been talking to the vice provost for faculty and his department chair to see if it would be possible to take an unpaid leave of absence in order to campaign.
Braithwaite, a former ambassador to Norway who served as Navy secretary under President Donald Trump, was reported by The Philadelphia Inquirer in late January to be considering a run for Senate in Pennsylvania in 2022 as well. Three people familiar with the matter reportedly said that Braithwaite, who graduated from Penn’s Fels Institute of Government with a master’s degree in government administration in 1995, would be a good bridge between the moderate and pro-Trump factions of the Republican Party.
"I have been approached by many in D.C. and here in Pennsylvania who have encouraged me to consider pursuing my old boss Senator Arlen Specter’s U.S. Senate seat," Braithwaite recently told POLITICO. “As you can appreciate, I am considering many options and opportunities as I transition back to the private sector."
For Orts, the catalyst for seriously considering a Senate campaign occurred this past summer when two students from the Cole Scholars Program at Oberlin College, Orts’ alma mater, were matched with Orts and helped him do preliminary research for his potential campaign.
Nina Liloia, now a junior at Barnard College, was one of the two program scholar recipients who helped Orts with both her research on past academics who ran for office and sustainable environmental policies.
Liloia told the DP that she really enjoyed working with Orts because of their shared passion for environmental justice and said she could tell that he truly cared about helping people. After finishing her time with Orts as a Cole Scholar in August, she continued to work for his prospective campaign as Exploratory Committee Co-Director, and is now part of his Youth Committee, where she helps with fundraising and social media outreach.
Wharton senior Nick Sanitsky, a former student of Orts', joined Orts' Youth Committee as one of its chairmen after he joined the exploratory team during the summer.
Sanitsky said he has faith that Orts would work hard in the Senate and keep the interests of Pennsylvanians at the forefront of his mind, adding that Orts brings a fresh perspective as both a professor and a political outsider.
“I think a lot of rhetoric and policy proposals can either be surface-level or too confusing, but as a professor, lawyer, and thought leader, Professor Orts brings a lot of potential to develop new ideas that are digestible,” Sanitsky said.
According to Orts’ exploratory committee website, some of the main issues he would tackle on the campaign trail and in the Senate include championing environmental justice, making the economy more ethical, and ensuring affordable, high-level education for all students.
Orts said that his views on climate change have been influenced by his years of experience as a professor at Penn — specifically when he attended the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992 through a grant from Wharton.
After attending the conference, Orts began teaching and researching environmental management, leading him to realize the current politicization of environmental issues. He added that oil and gas industries are “putting their fingers on the scale” of democracy by fighting for laws that prevent people from implementing technologies that can solve the climate crisis.
“My understanding of the climate issue, and environmental issues generally, helped me [realize] that the only thing standing in the way of solving the climate challenge that we have right now is political — it's not technological or a business problem,” Orts said. “We cannot just solve this by sitting in an ivory tower, thinking about how businesses can do better. I felt a need to get more involved politically.”
Regardless of whether Orts decides to embark on his run for Senate, Liloia and Sanitsky agreed on the vitality of his message.
“No matter what happens, I hope [Orts] gets the issues that he cares about into the public view,” Liloia said. “I hope that people start thinking more seriously about environmental issues and how they intersect with other priorities that Pennsylvanians have — whether it be growing businesses, better education, or health and safety.”