Trump Navy secretary considering Pennsylvania Senate run

Kenneth Braithwaite, a former Navy secretary in the Trump administration, is weighing a Senate run in Pennsylvania in 2022, he said Friday.

“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 told POLITICO. “As you can appreciate, I am considering many options and opportunities as I transition back to the private sector.”

The seat, which retiring GOP Sen. Pat Toomey is leaving open, is practically a must-win for both parties next year, with Pennsylvania one of the most tightly divided states in the country and the Senate currently split 50-50, with Vice President Kamala Harris providing Democrats the tiebreaker. Former President Donald Trump carried Pennsylvania by just under 1 percentage point in 2016 before President Joe Biden flipped it by a point in 2020.

A retired Navy rear admiral who served on active duty and as a reservist, Braithwaite was Navy secretary in the waning months of the Trump administration. He was also Trump’s ambassador to Norway from 2018 to 2020.

Braithwaite worked as a top adviser to former Sen. Arlen Specter, the longtime face of moderate Republicans in Pennsylvania who later became a Democrat. He was brought onto Specter’s team by University of Pennsylvania classmate David Urban, who helped advise Trump’s successful 2016 campaign in Pennsylvania.

“Aside from his distinguished military career, professionally Secretary Braithwaite is a consensus builder,” said Greg Manz, the former Pennsylvania Republican Party spokesman who worked for Trump’s campaign in both 2016 and 2020. “He’d be a formidable Senate candidate in 2022.”

Because of his resume, some political insiders in Pennsylvania view Braithwaite as a different breed of candidate than a full-blown Trump loyalist. And his history in different flanks of the GOP could benefit him in Pennsylvania.

“Ken is well-liked and able. He survived his association with Donald Trump with an enhanced reputation,” Specter’s son, Shanin Specter, said. “I hope he’ll stay in public service in some form.”

“He’s a little bit Trump-y, a little bit Arlen Specter,” according to one person with direct knowledge of Braithwaite’s deliberations. In Pennsylvania, “He’s conservative enough to win a primary, but moderate enough to win a general election.”

Toomey’s retirement has already generated significant interest from candidates in both parties. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman has opened an exploratory committee and this week announced raising more than $1 million in 14 days. Other potential candidates include, on the Republican side, former GOP Rep. Ryan Costello, real estate developer Jeff Bartos, ex-gubernatorial candidate Paul Mango, and Reps. Mike Kelly and Guy Reschenthaler. Potential Democratic contenders include Reps. Conor Lamb and Chrissy Houlahan, state Sen. Sharif Street, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, Philadelphia City Council Member Helen Gym and state Reps. Elizabeth Fiedler and Malcolm Kenyatta.

The person with direct knowledge of Braithwaite’s deliberations said he is not yet near a decision despite fielding entreaties from interested strategists.

“Is it something that’s serious? Yes. Has he put a great deal of time into thinking about it yet? Not a ton,” the person said.

Braithwaite was easily confirmed as the Navy’s top civilian official by the Senate in May, promising changes after a series of missteps by the service.

He took over as secretary after the Navy’s handling of a coronavirus outbreak aboard the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt resulted in acting Secretary Thomas Modly’s resignation in April. The previous Senate-confirmed Navy secretary, Richard Spencer, was ousted in late 2019 over his handling of the war crimes case of former Navy SEAL Eddie Gallagher.

Braithwaite was dogged ahead of his confirmation process by questions about his affiliations with Cambridge Analytica, after CBS News reported he may have failed to disclose a contract with the now-defunct political consulting firm when he was nominated to his ambassadorship. The firm shuttered in 2018 following revelations it improperly harvested data from millions of Facebook users to target voters in support of Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Braithwaite denied entering into a formal contract with Cambridge Analytica, and the issue ultimately didn’t come up at his May 2020 confirmation hearing.

Braithwaite kept a low profile during his eight-month tenure at the Pentagon. The administration rolled out a plan in the waning months of Trump’s term to rapidly expand the size of the Navy to more than 500 ships, but National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien was the plan’s most vocal spokesperson.

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