HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — The Republican primary for Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate seat turned personal Wednesday, as real estate developer Jeff Bartos slammed rival Sean Parnell for allegations related to his contentious divorce and child custody dispute. Parnell, the Trump-endorsed candidate, accused Bartos of lying and demanded he drop out of the race.
The attack was the sharpest yet of the primary for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.
Republicans and Democrats each have a big field of candidates for the open seat in the politically divided state, and the race is expected to be competitive and among a handful that could determine control of the Senate next year.
Bartos launched the attack by bringing up restraining orders sought by Parnell's wife in 2017 and in 2018 during divorce proceedings that are still ongoing.
Parnell's campaign disputed the notion that the temporary orders — granted prior to a hearing involving both parties — were evidence of any wrongdoing. Neither lasted more than a matter of days.
Parnell's wife agreed to withdraw her first request. A judge decided against making the other permanent after a hearing involving Parnell. Both were later ordered expunged, and the applications for the orders — the document that details the allegations — are no longer part of the publicly available filings in their divorce case.
The fact that neither order became permanent and that he maintains 50-50 custody of his children is proof, his campaign said, that there was no truth to his wife's allegations. Parnell was not charged with a crime.
Parnell’s wife did not respond to a message.
Her attorney, Jen Gilliland Vanasdale, declined to discuss her client's allegations. But, she said, her client was “relieved that these filings resulted in Mr. Parnell continuing to be excluded from the home where she and her children have resided since 2018."
Bartos, in a campaign statement, called Parnell “unelectable” and a threat to Republican chances of capturing a Senate majority in next year’s election. Parnell accused Bartos of being “a desperate liar” telling “horrific lies, and all the evidence proves it.”
Bartos’ latest attack on Parnell comes barely a week after former President Donald Trump endorsed Parnell in the race for the Republican nomination.
Parnell — a decorated former Army Ranger who penned a memoir of his service in Afghanistan, which became a New York Times bestseller —became politically active in recent years, running unsuccessfully for Congress last year and landing a coveted speaking slot at the 2020 Republican National Convention.
Bartos, a longtime GOP fundraiser who is trying to straddle the party's establishment wing and its Trump wing, was the state GOP's unsuccessful nominee for lieutenant governor in 2018.
Campaign strategists had been aware of the restraining orders since Parnell ran for a Pittsburgh-area U.S. House seat last year and lost.
But it had not been raised by a political opponent until the Bartos campaign emailed it to reporters Wednesday, with documents showing police had shown up several times to Parnell's house in recent years and that county sheriffs had served Parnell with the orders.
“Parnell will eliminate Republicans’ chances to hold this seat," the Bartos campaign said in a statement.
Parnell said Bartos “needs to do the honorable thing:” apologize to Parnell's family and withdraw from the race. Bartos is spreading lies without any consideration for how it affects Parnell's family, Parnell said.
“It takes a truly dishonorable ‘man’ to stoop this low just to score a few cheap political points. He should be ashamed of himself. ... Unfortunately, Jeff’s lies hurt my three kids and that’s unforgivable," Parnell said in a statement.
According to Butler County sheriff’s office records distributed by Bartos’ campaign, Parnell was ordered to surrender his guns, an option that judges have under state law when approving a temporary restraining order.
He became “loud and disruptive” in the county's domestic relations office when it was issued in 2018, the records say.
Parnell did not dispute the authenticity of the records.
Allegations in an application for a restraining order can involve physical, emotional or verbal abuse.
They can also involve harassment or threats to the accuser or the children, or even the accused threatening to harm themselves, said Helen Casale, a lawyer specializing in family law at the Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller firm in Philadelphia.
Parties often agree to withdraw applications for a restraining order after securing a side agreement, such as anger-management counseling or a custody schedule, Casale said.
That the judge decided not to make the second restraining order permanent means the allegations “did not rise to the level of domestic violence. That's it. That’s the only thing we can conclude,” Casale said.
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