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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.

"While I plan to ask the court to reconsider, I can't continue with a Senate campaign," he said. "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 of the children. Parnell will have partial physical custody of the 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."

Arner wrote in his opinion that the children, ages 12, 11 and 8, “love and feel safe with both their parents” and that he made his decision based on factors such as the children’s need for stability and the availability of each parent to care for them.

He also chided both parents for refusing to communicate and compromise with one another, saying both Parnell and Snell are "equally at fault" for "refusing to communicate effectively and to reach compromise decisions regarding the needs of the children."

Testimony about abuse

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.”

Judge Arner wrote that he found Snell’s testimony to be credible and that Parnell “did commit some acts of abuse in the past.”

“She described many incidents,” the judge wrote. “She provided factual details of each incident, including when they happened and what happened. She testified in a convincing manner. Her testimony was not uncertain, confused, self-contradictory, or evasive.”

Parnell, Arner wrote, was “less credible” and “somewhat evasive.”

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 simply denied that all of [the] incidents ever happened,” Arner wrote.

Arner said he found the incidents involving their children “did happen” as Snell described, but because Parnell hadn’t committed any acts that could be considered abusive toward Snell or the children in several years, he would not “place weight on that evidence.”

Arner also wrote that he also considered the way Parnell carried himself during the hearing when making his determination.

“He was dressed very casually for his appearances in court, in blue jeans and untucked plaid shirts, which did not show respect for the seriousness of the occasion," the judge wrote. "While testifying he looked mainly in the direction of [his] attorneys and toward members of the news media in the back of the courtroom, rather than at me.”

Parnell’s campaign schedule

One of the most important factors in the case, Arner wrote, was the kids’ need for stability and continuity. While Snell has a flexible work schedule, Parnell travels for work.

“Significantly, Sean Parnell is a leading candidate for United States Senate and will be traveling frequently as he campaigns through the State in preparation for the primary election next spring,” Arner wrote. “He expects to win the election and reside parts of the year in Washington, D.C. These circumstances certainly restrict his ability to have primary physical custody of the children.”

“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 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 aneffective 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 had 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.

Updated: November 22, 2021 at 3:54 PM EST
This story was updated to reflect Parnell's announcement that he was ending his campaign for U.S. Senate.
Updated: November 22, 2021 at 1:47 PM EST
This story was updated to include a comment from Snell's attorney.