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GOP Senate candidate Sean Parnell ends campaign after losing custody bid

Republican Sean Parnell launched his U.S. Senate campaign on May 11.
Lucy Perkins
90.5 WESA
Republican Sean Parnell launched his U.S. Senate campaign on May 11.

Hours after losing a bid to obtain sole custody of his three children, Republican U.S. Senate Candidate Sean Parnell announced he is suspending his campaign.

"I strongly disagree with the ruling today, and I'm devastated by the decision," Parnell said in a campaign statement Monday afternoon.

He said that he would ask the court to reconsider the ruling, but "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."

Parnell issued the statement hours after the release of a judge's order granting sole legal and primary physical custody of the children to Parnell's estranged wife Laurie Snell. Parnell and Snell both sought full custody of their children.

According to the Butler County court docket, Senior Judge James Arner's Nov. 16 order states that Snell will have sole legal and primary physical custody. Parnell will have partial physical custody of the three children three weekends a month, according to the order.

Prior to a custody hearing earlier this month, both parents shared custody, as per a previous court order. In his order, Arner also noted that "Laurie Snell was the more credible witness [and] she can truthfully give regular status reports to Sean Parnell [and] as may be needed to the court."

“Ms. Snell is grateful that justice prevailed,” attorney Jill Sinatra said in a statement on behalf of Snell. “She has been awarded sole legal and primary physical custody of their children. She will continue, as always, to focus on their best interests.”

Parnell’s attorney could not be immediately reached for comment.

In a bitter, three-day court hearing earlier this month in Butler County, Snell testified that Parnell choked her, hurt their children and told her to get an abortion.

Parnell emphatically denied the allegations during his own testimony. When presented with a photo allegedly taken of a handprint-sized welt on his son’s back, he responded: “That is not a picture of my son.”

During his testimony, Parnell described a happy and loving picture of his relationship with his children. He said it was actually Snell who was physical with him — and that he wanted full custody to “protect my family.”

He also testified that if wins the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania next year, he’d still be completely capable of taking care of his kids despite the Senate’s demanding schedule in Washington, D.C.

However, he also said that he would also be open to sharing custody with his wife “if she’s in a better place.”

Parnell’s family has come up in earlier court matters related to his political career as well. In 2019, Parnell asked a judge for permission to post photos of his children online, citing a brand strategist’s advice “in order to harness the potential of his customer base [and] secure new followers].”

The filing also said Parnell “needs to be unrestricted in his ability to include reference to his children on his social media platform.” The court did permit Parnell to post some photos of his children on his social media platforms.

At that time and again during the custody hearing earlier this month, Snell testified that she was concerned images of the kids were being posted and made accessible to strangers online “to get followers or likes.”

Those who study political messaging have said that kids can be an effective way for candidates to connect with voters and can also soften their political image.

Parnell had been considered a Republican frontrunner in next year’s U.S. Senate race, and he already has garnered the endorsement of former President Donald Trump. But after the custody battle and allegations of physical abuse became public,reports of speculation about his strength as a candidate grew.

Trump also endorsed Parnell in last year’s election, when he ran for U.S. House against Democrat Conor Lamb. Parnell lost that race by about 10,000 votes.

A Republican, Parnell lives in Sewickley and is a decorated Army veteran and author. He also works at a mortgage company.