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Sean Parnell ends Pennsylvania Senate campaign after wife granted sole legal custody of their children

Republican Sean Parnell, who was endorsed by former president Donald Trump, suspended his campaign for Senate on Nov. 22 after losing custody of his children. (Video: Reuters)

Republican Sean Parnell, who was endorsed by former president Donald Trump in a closely watched Pennsylvania Senate race, said Monday he will not continue with his campaign, hours after it was made public that a judge had granted his estranged wife primary custody of the couple’s three children.

The judge’s order last week, made public in court documents Monday, outlined in detail the allegations of domestic and other abuse Laurie Snell had made against her estranged husband, and concluded that “Parnell did commit some acts of abuse in the past.” Parnell has denied the allegations.

In his decision to award primary physical and sole legal custody of the children to Snell, Senior Judge James Arner deemed Snell “the more credible witness” who “can truthfully give regular status reports to Sean Parnell and, as may be needed, to the court.”

Snell will have the sole right to make major decisions on behalf of the children, Arner said. Parnell will have partial physical custody of the children on three weekends each month. Parnell and Snell separated in 2018, according to court documents.

In the order, the judge said he had also factored in Parnell’s Senate run — which would have required frequent travel as he campaigned — and wrote that Parnell “expects to win the election and to reside parts of the year in Washington, D.C.” Snell, meanwhile, has maintained her residence in the area where the children are already attending school.

Parnell said in a statement that he was “devastated by the decision” and that he intends to appeal the judge’s ruling.

“I strongly disagree with the ruling today,” Parnell said in a statement. “There is nothing more important to me than my children, and while I plan to ask the court to reconsider, I can’t continue with a Senate campaign. My focus right now is 100% on my children, and I want them to know I do not have any other priorities and will never stop fighting for them.”

In sworn testimony, wife of Pa. Senate candidate Sean Parnell says he choked her and abused their children

Snell has accused Parnell of multiple forms of abuse before their separation, including choking her and hitting one of their children so hard he left a “full handprint” mark on the child’s back. She testified that Parnell has thrown chairs across the room toward her; pinned her down and screamed profanities at her; called her crazy in front of the children; and once dropped her off on Interstate 79 when she was six months pregnant and told her to get an abortion.

Parnell has denied her allegations as “complete fabrications.” In a court hearing earlier this month, he countered with claims under oath that she physically abused him, although he declined to offer specifics.

In his decision, Arner wrote that he found Parnell’s testimony “less credible,” citing his demeanor and dress in the courtroom and his tendency to focus on his attorneys and the news media while testifying, rather than looking at the judge.

Parnell “simply denied that all of incidents ever happened, except he did describe his view of the incident when his younger son was hit by a closet door,” Arner wrote. “He was somewhat evasive. When weighing his position against Laurie Snell’s statements of detailed facts about many incidents, Sean Parnell’s position is less believable.”

Arner said he also considered testimony under oath from all three children, as well as mental and physical assessments of the children and the parents, which would remain confidential.

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In May, Parnell launched his campaign for an open Senate seat that will be vacated by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), who is retiring at the end of his term next year. Parnell, a former U.S. Army Ranger, ran for Congress in 2020 in the Pittsburgh area, losing by about two percentage points.

Trump endorsed Parnell in September while also continuing to assert his baseless claims that the 2020 election was rigged. Trump claimed that Parnell had been “robbed in his congressional run in the Crime of the Century — the 2020 President Election Scam.” There has been no evidence of widespread voter fraud that would have changed the results of the 2020 presidential election.

“Sean bravely fought for our Country as a Captain in the U.S. Army and was awarded two Bronze Stars (one for valor!) and the Purple Heart,” Trump stated then. “Unlike our current administration, he never left anyone behind … Sean Parnell will always put America First. He has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

However, other key members of the GOP establishment had not fully thrown their support behind Parnell. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, declined to say whether Parnell was the right candidate for the job when asked earlier this month about him and the abuse allegations.

NRSC chair Rick Scott declines to say if Trump-backed Senate hopeful accused of strangling wife is right candidate for the job

There was broad agreement between Parnell and his campaign team about ending the campaign after the judge’s ruling, according to a person familiar with the decision who spoke on the condition of anonymity to reveal internal discussions. The campaign team had previously calculated that continuing would be difficult if the judge lent credibility to his estranged wife’s claims, and the ruling made clear that the fact he was mounting a campaign had worked against his efforts to gain custody.

President Biden won Pennsylvania in 2020, making the battleground state one of the better opportunities for Democrats to pick up a Senate seat in 2022. Parnell’s departure further upends a Republican primary that was already in flux in recent months, not only because of Parnell’s legal challenges.

Former U.S. ambassador to Denmark, Carla Sands, a Republican who has given her campaign more than $3 million, brought on a new campaign team in September after she did not win Trump’s endorsement. Businessman Jeff Bartos, who loaned his campaign $1.2 million, spoke out strongly against Parnell, calling him unelectable in the state in part because of the legal conflicts with Snell.

Mehmet Oz, who rose to fame as “Dr. Oz” on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” has also been exploring a Republican campaign for Senate in Pennsylvania, according to people familiar with the plans. David McCormick, a former Treasury Department official who now runs the Bridgewater hedge fund, has also been approached about joining the race. McCormick and his wife, former Trump deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, recently had dinner with Trump, according to people familiar with the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was private.

Upon news of Parnell’s decision Monday, top Democrats said Pennsylvania Republicans were “in chaos.”

“This development highlights the weakness of leading GOP Senate candidates in key battlegrounds,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman David Bergstein said. “And the vicious infighting amongst Republicans in Pennsylvania is sure to intensify, just like it has in Senate races across the country.”

However, the Democratic side of the race is also up in the air, with two major candidates offering starkly different choices. Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, a former mayor of Braddock, Pa., was a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2016 Democratic primary and received Sanders’s endorsement in his last statewide race. Marine veteran and congressman Conor Lamb, by contrast, is a member of the moderate Problem Solvers Caucus and has received plaudits from Biden, who compared him to his late son Beau Biden in temperament during his first congressional race.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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