Dems Wage Intra-Party War in Pa. Senate Race
Democrats are locked in a tight, negative battle to determine who will challenge Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in November, with national groups spending millions of dollars to boost a candidate who is trailing in the polls against an opponent who has spurned party leadership in showing an independent streak.
That outside money – around $4 million from different groups – has provided a jolt to Katie McGinty, a former Clinton administration official and chief of staff to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf. In fact, Democratic leaders have gone all in on her candidacy, with President Obama and Vice President Biden endorsing McGinty and Biden campaigning with her. The Senate Democrats’ campaign arm and the state’s other senator, Democrat Bob Casey, have also endorsed McGinty, viewing her as the best option to win the seat in November.
But the spending and endorsements have increased deep divides between national Democrats and the other candidate, former congressman and retired Navy Adm. Joe Sestak, who narrowly lost to Toomey six years ago.
It’s created a potentially devastating problem for the party and could cost it a seat as Democrats try to regain control of the upper chamber.
Though McGinty is surging, Sestak (pictured, at right) leads in the race and could eke out a win next week. If he does, there will be sore feelings and frustrations on both sides.
Polls in late March showed Sestak with a 17-point lead, but McGinty began to close that gap in early April, and a poll released Wednesday showed the two of them tied at 39 percent with 18 percent still undecided. A poll released Thursday showed Sestak maintaining a six-point lead in the race with 29 percent of voters still undecided – though Sestak had a nine-point lead among likely voters. (An internal poll released the same day by McGinty's campaign showed her ahead by three points, 37 percent-34 percent.)
McGinty’s campaign and supporters sense the momentum, both in the polls and on the ground, and think that while their candidate was relatively unknown for months after entering the race, she is peaking at the perfect time ahead of Tuesday’s primary.
McGinty, in an interview with RealClearPolitics, said her surge is based on more than just increased TV advertising, asserting that it is also due to phone and in-person voter contacts and rallies she has held to get her message out. Most people simply weren’t paying attention to the race weeks ago, McGinty said, but recently she’s been able to chip away at her deficit.
“There's no way that you do this overnight, and there’s certainly no way that you do this when you are competing against someone who has been a longtime player in Washington, someone who has been a congressman for several terms, who only a few years ago ran a very big campaign and established name recognition that way as well,” McGinty said. “It would be a very foolish endeavor to think that you’d come in and overnight just wipe that away.”
Sestak, for his part, told RCP he feels “extraordinarily good” about his standing in the days leading up the primary, and that his campaign is “right where we wanted to be.”
Despite that confidence, Sestak was unreserved in his criticism of the Democrats who are spending against him, particularly the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The group, which is Senate Democrats’ official campaign arm, spent $1.1 million in independent expenditures backing McGinty earlier this month, according to CQ Roll Call.
While that frustrated Sestak, it was the DSCC’s coordinated spending that caused him to attack the committee. The group has spent nearly half a million dollars in coordinated money backing McGinty, according to Roll Call. Such spending is limited to just $1.9 million in Pennsylvania, meaning the primary spending cuts into what the group can use in the general election.
Sestak said the DSCC did the same thing six years ago, spending significant portions of coordinated money to back Sen. Arlen Specter – who had switched to the Democratic Party – and leaving little of it to be spent in the general election, which caused significant problems for Sestak’s campaign against Toomey in 2010. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported at the time that the group spent $1.4 million backing Specter, leaving just $200,000 for the general election.
“It’s not very smart of them to do that because it hurts whoever wins the primary,” Sestak said in an interview with RCP. “Number two is it’s the lack of accountability and why people don’t trust anymore. I’ve heard scores of people who have said, ‘I’m not giving to the DSCC anymore. I didn’t give them money to put in against a Democrat,’ particularly an extraordinarily good Democrat in terms off what I stand for and particularly someone who has shown a track record of professional wins.”
Filings with the Federal Election Commission, however, show that the DSCC gave the maximum amount to Sestet’s general election campaign six years ago and spent about $1.5 million supporting him. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the DSCC also spent $8 million in advertisements against Toomey that wasn’t coordinated with Sestak's campaign because of campaign finance rules.
The DSCC declined to comment for this article.
While the outside spending has certainly provided McGinty with a significant boost in the polls, some Sestak supporters argue it will ultimately backfire in a year when voters have been seeking outsider candidates.
“The last thing the Democratic voters want to hear is the political establishment is telling you who to vote for,” said David Landau, the chairman of the Delaware County Democratic Committee, which endorsed Sestak. “That’s not a message that resonates right now, if it ever resonates. But it’s certainly not resonating in this election cycle."
While Sestak has led in the polls, multiple sources in Pennsylvania said it is difficult to predict which candidate has the edge in the campaign’s final days. Sestak’s supporters argue that while McGinty has the backing of most of the so-called establishment, Sestak’s support among the grassroots remains strong, and he’ll be able to rely on good supporter turnout to put him over the top.
McGinty backers, however, argue Sestak has been running essentially nonstop since he lost to Toomey in 2010 and should have rallied enough support to secure the primary long ago.
“You have a late entrant [in McGinty] and a guy who’s a nonstop campaigner sitting on a couple million bucks,” said T.J. Rooney, who managed McGinty’s failed 2014 bid for governor. “By all accounts, this race should have been over a long time ago and it should have been put to bed. He just can’t close the deal.”
Stuck in a near dead heat, the candidates haven’t shied from trading attacks on each other’s records. In a debate earlier this month, McGinty accused Sestak of supporting cuts to Social Security and other entitlement programs, highlighting statements he had made in support of the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan from 2010. Sestak pushed back during the debate, saying he had voted dozens of times supporting Social Security, and multiple fact-checkers cited her claims as false and misleading.
Despite that, McGinty pointed to the issue as the number one policy difference between herself and Sestak in the interview with RCP.
“The admiral has left no room for doubt … he’s ridden quite a high horse about this issue for six years,” McGinty said. “I understand fully now it’s not popular, but it is in fact a position he has taken and consistently taken and taken with fervor and with frankly criticism of others who would not take that position along with him."
Sestak, in his interview with RCP, defended his position on the issue and accused McGinty of hypocrisy, highlighting statements she made during the Clinton administration in support of a fiscal plan that would have increased taxes on seniors – an attack Republican groups have also leveled against McGinty.
McGinty was actually speaking about the environmental portions of the Clinton plan, which AARP also supported. But the back-and-forth criticisms highlight how both candidates, while trying to run positive campaigns and win over undecided voters, aren’t afraid to trade barbs.
Despite the contest’s negative turn, Democrats hold out hope that whatever the results on Tuesday, the party will be able to unify around its candidate to defeat Toomey and bring down the GOP Senate majority. Whether that unity is achieved or not, the expensive and bloody primary has put a wrinkle in Democrats’ plans for this race. Toomey has no challenger in the primary, and has more than $9 million in the bank as he awaits Tuesday’s winner.
“Whether it’s Katie McGinty or Joe Sestak that comes out of the primary next Tuesday, they are going to be dead broke,” said Larry Ceisler, a public affairs executive and publisher of politicspa.com. “Toomey is certainly going to get the jump on whoever wins that primary."