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Custody fight in Pennsylvania could decide the political fate of GOP Senate candidate Sean Parnell

Sean Parnell announces his candidacy for the Republican nomination for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat in McCandless, Pa., on May 11.
Sean Parnell announces his candidacy for the Republican nomination for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat in McCandless, Pa., on May 11. (Steve Mellon/Post-Gazette/AP)
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BUTLER, Pa. — The fate of Republican Sean Parnell’s U.S. Senate campaign rested in the hands of a family court judge Tuesday, as arguments wrapped up in a custody battle with his estranged wife that broadcast damaging accusations of domestic violence.

Senior Judge James Arner declined to deliver a ruling on Tuesday and said he will issue a written decision.

The case, which has upended the Republican primary for an open Senate seat, has raised questions about whether former president Donald Trump’s pick to win a seat that will be vacated by Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.) can survive a general election in the purple state.

Parnell’s estranged wife, Laurie Snell, with whom he shares three children, has accused him of multiple forms of abuse, including strangling her and hitting one of their children so hard he left a fingerprint-shaped welt on the child’s back. She said Parnell has called her a “piece of s---” and said he once told her to get an abortion.

Parnell has denied her allegations as “complete fabrications.” He countered this week with claims under oath that she physically abused him, although he declined to offer specifics.

“Laurie’s anger and resentment toward me have clouded her judgment,” Parnell told the judge in testimony Monday.

When his attorney, Kristen Batson Eberle, asked him during cross-examination whether he had ever “struck or hurt” his children, Parnell, sounding indignant, answered “never.”

Late Tuesday, he issued a statement calling the past week “the most trying” in his family’s life. “I love my kids, and being their father is the greatest honor I have ever had,” he said, adding that he would not comment further until the judge’s decision.

Parnell’s campaign team has argued privately that he will be able to survive the public airing of his domestic conflicts if the judge rules that he can continue to have joint custody of the children.

But other Republicans are not as certain, even with Trump’s continued support. (The former president is scheduled to host a fundraiser for Parnell on Jan. 25 at his club in Palm Beach, Fla.) There is significant discussion in political circles that at least one additional candidate could jump into the primary in the coming weeks.

“Trump’s team failed to do basic vetting on Parnell,” said Scott Reed, a Republican consultant who ran political campaigns for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for years. “And this is another example of a problem where they jumped into a race that jeopard­izes Republicans’ ability to win in the fall.”

Parnell and Snell have been separated since May of 2018, according to Parnell’s legal filings, and their custody dispute has lasted for years. In June of 2018, each filed for orders of protection against the other, but the petitions were denied after a court hearing.

In court Monday, Snell said the claims she made in a hearing last week had been included in her last petition for an order of protection.

She also admitted to praising Parnell in a text message and going on a family vacation with him after the allegedly violent incidents.

“I know you’re a good dad and it’s important that the kids see you,” she wrote, according to texts submitted as evidence.

Snell also submitted a text message into evidence Monday intended to show that Parnell had frightened her away from dating since their split. The message she said she received from Parnell read, “You’re gross. . . . Go to hell.”

Parnell countered that Snell had large parties after their separation and that their children came back from time with her “like zombies” without sleep. He said one of his children once had a large pinch mark, and Snell said under oath she had pinched one as punishment.

On Tuesday, Snell’s attorney Jill Sinatra confronted Parnell with a poster-size replica of a photo Snell allegedly took showing a fist-shaped bruise on the back of one of their children.

“That’s not a picture of my son,” Parnell insisted.

Sinatra also argued that Parnell would not be able to provide 50-50 child care when running for the Senate and, if he won, working in Washington. She asked for sole legal custody of their three children for Snell. Parnell asked to continue joint custody but with more time with them.

A former U.S. Army Ranger, Parnell served as a commander of a 40-man infantry platoon during the Afghanistan war. He wrote a well-received 2012 book, “Outlaw Platoon,” recounting his war experience, and has been public since then about his post-
traumatic stress disorder and the struggles he had returning to civilian life.

He recounted in the book beating and choking a former high school bully who tried to assault him in a Pittsburgh bar bathroom in 2007, after his return, saying he did not know whether the person survived the fight until the following morning. He cited the incident as a key moment pushing him to get treatment for the “fire raging inside of me before it torched my life.”

In the book, he describes his later marriage to Snell and fatherhood as playing major roles in his psychological healing.

He later became a frequent guest in conservative media and ran for Congress in 2020 in the Pittsburgh area, losing by about two percentage points.

Parnell’s opponents have argued that he will struggle to win the general election, both because of the conflict with his estranged wife and his public comments. In 2019, he appeared on Fox Nation, a streaming service from Fox News, and commented on a recent study that suggested U.S. marriage rates were low because of a lack of “economically attractive men.”

“I am going to say something very, very un-PC. I reject this study wholesale,” Parnell said. “I feel like the whole happy wife, happy life nonsense has done nothing but raise one generation of women tyrants after the next.”

“The idea that a woman doesn’t need a man to be successful, the idea that a woman doesn’t need a man to have a baby, the idea that a woman can live a happy and fulfilling life without a man, I think it’s all nonsense,” he said.

He later explained the appearance by saying it was a “tongue-in-cheek comedy show.”

The Republican primary for Senate in Pennsylvania has been 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, recently brought on a new campaign team after she did not win Trump’s endorsement. Businessman Jeff Bartos, who loaned his campaign $1.2 million, has been speaking out strongly against Parnell, calling him unelectable in the state in part because of the legal conflicts with Snell.

Parnell has slightly more than $1 million in cash in his campaign, after the last filing period.

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.

The Democratic side of the race is also in flux, 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’ endorsement in his last statewide race. Former Marine and current Rep. Conor Lamb, by contrast, is a member of the moderate problem solvers caucus and has received plaudits from President Biden, who compared him to his late son Beau Biden in temperament during his first congressional race.

Keppler reported from Butler, Pa., and Scherer from Washington.