Obama-backed Dem makes gains in Pa. primary

The Democratic Senate race in Pennsylvania has tightened as the party’s establishment seeks to topple the insurgent candidate Tuesday.

Until recently, polls had shown Katie McGinty, the establishment favorite, consistently trailing rival Joe Sestak in the race to take on vulnerable Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. 

{mosads}Party leaders are still angry over Sestak’s successful primary challenge against then-Sen. Arlen Specter (D) in 2010 and eventual loss to Toomey by 2 points in a year of major gains for Republicans.

But in a poll released Monday, McGinty overtook Sestak for the first time, leading him by 6 points, though a substantial number of voters remain undecided. That leaves political observers saying the heated race is anyone’s game.

“About 1 in every 4 Democratic voters has not made up his or her mind, and what that leads to then is the fact that there’s great volatility … left in the race,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll, referring to results of his group’s latest survey. “It wouldn’t stun me if either would win given what we know.”

“These candidates are way more similar [on issues] than you might believe … and so the difference lies in personality, it lies in narratives,” he added.

McGinty’s recent surge can be largely attributed to last-minute help from high-profile endorsements, most notably President Obama and Vice President Biden, and financial support from outside groups.

Days before the primary, her campaign aired an ad touting the White House’s endorsement, and Obama recorded audio for the 30-second spot.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee reserved $1.1 million in advertising spots for the final two weeks of the race, and EMILY’s List, which backs female candidates who support abortion rights, also poured in $1 million earlier this month. McGinty, a former chief of staff to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D), has  also received outside help from major labor unions.

McGinty and Sestak have sparred most notably over Social Security. At a past Senate debate, she accused Sestak, a former House member, of backing cuts to the program and highlighted his past support for the 2010 Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan.

The independent expenditure arm for EMILY’s List ran a TV ad also accusing Sestak of supporting those cuts, but he called the ad’s claims “false” in a press release and noted that he has voted 40 times in support of Social Security and Medicare.

Last week, a Monmouth University poll found the race in a dead heat, with 18 percent of likely Democratic voters undecided. And a Franklin & Marshall College poll found her cutting into Sestak’s lead, trailing him by 6 points.

On Monday, Harper Polling released a survey that showed McGinty up 39 percent to Sestak’s 33 percent, with 11 percent of voters still undecided. The group’s poll in early April showed Sestak with a 10-point lead, with 19 percent undecided.

Sen. Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.), a campaign surrogate for McGinty, said the influx of support has helped amplify her message and says it is a validation of her bid. 

“She’s been able to get her message out in ways she was not able to prior to a few weeks ago,” Casey said. “I think it’s a testament to her candidacy and the support she’s developed across the state.”

Casey said focusing on undecided voters is critical with the contest so close.

“I also think it’s a race a lot of voters begin to think about a little later than is usually the case,” Casey said, noting the dominant coverage of the presidential race.

Still, strategists and observers aren’t discounting Sestak, a former admiral who’s known as a fierce campaigner.

He has also enjoyed outside help from a super-PAC supporting his bid, Accountable Leadership, which has spent more than $700,000 backing him.

“He’s been running for this Senate seat since the day he lost six years ago,” Larry Ceisler, a longtime Pennsylvania political observer. “This guy goes everywhere.”

Sestak has consolidated a lot of grassroots support, and Democrats from Delaware County, which Sestak represented in Congress, have given him a full-throated endorsement.

The county’s Democratic Party chairman, David Landau, remains optimistic about Sestak’s chances and expressed disappointment in party leaders for rallying against someone Landau described as a “mainstream Democrat.”

“He may not be as traditional a campaigner as the leadership might like. He may be slightly independent in the way he does things, but he wins,” Landau said, adding that he’ll support McGinty if she’s the party’s nominee. “They ought to be ashamed with themselves to waste millions and millions of dollars they could have been putting against Pat Toomey in the fall.”

Sestak’s campaign echoed a similar sentiment. “We remain confident that Joe’s flawless Democratic record and his people-first campaign strategy will overcome the more than 3-to-1 spending deficit that Washington party bosses have — so far unsuccessfully — tried to use to put ahead their preferred candidate,” spokesman David Waterman said.

John Fetterman, mayor of a suburban Pittsburgh city, and little-known challenger Joe Vodvarka are also running. Fetterman, a progressive candidate who’s also spent money on ads, hasn’t been able to gain traction, and most polls show his support in the single digits.

Observers are unsure which Senate candidate would benefit more from the likely win by Hillary Clinton in the state’s presidential primary on Tuesday. But they note that the historic angle — Clinton potentially the first female president, McGinty potentially the state’s first female senator —  could help propel McGinty if she advances.

“One part for Katie McGinty that I think as part of a narrative in the general election is the unbelievable absence of women from Pennsylvania in Congress,” said Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College. “I could imagine some interesting synergy with Hillary Clinton, likely at the top of the Democratic ticket, and McGinty as a senatorial nominee.”

The eventual Democratic nominee will take on Toomey, who faces a tough political climate in a state that President Obama won in both 2008 and 2012. Most strategists don’t see either McGinty or Sestak as the better general election candidate, so the presidential race could be Democrats’ best bet for winning the Senate race in November, they say.

“I think that in Pennsylvania this race is dependent on who’s at the top of each of the respective tickets,” Ceisler said.

Toomey is in a comfortable position, leading in match-ups against both Democrats in a poll from earlier this month, and he has a significant cash advantage. His campaign has already worked to condemn their support for issues such as single-payer healthcare and Obama’s Iran nuclear deal.

“This is a stark contrast to Sen. Toomey’s sensible and successful efforts to help keep predators out of our classrooms, fight the opioid abuse epidemic and save Pennsylvania refinery jobs,” Toomey spokesman Ted Kwong said.

Political observers characterized Toomey as a noncontroversial lawmaker who has made inroads with Pennsylvania Democrats. 

But due to the volatile nature of the 2016 race so far, and with Donald Trump or Ted Cruz possibly topping the GOP ticket, they still see Toomey facing an uphill battle.

“He’s vulnerable because it’s a state in a presidential election year where Democratic turnout is a game changer, so he’s fighting against a much stronger current than he did when he was riding a wave in 2010,” Borick said.

Tags Bob Casey Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Ted Cruz

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