Aug. 6, 2015 — Tuesday, as expected, just-resigned gubernatorial chief of staff Katie McGinty announced that she will challenge former congressman Joe Sestak for the Democratic US Senate nomination next year. The winner opposes first-term Sen. Pat Toomey in one of the nation’s most critical campaigns.
The Pennsylvania contest has already been a major problem for the Democratic Party leadership. Falling into open internal warfare with Sestak, largely over personality conflicts and the inability to work together during his previous campaign five years ago, the party leaders have been candid about their desire to field another candidate.
Earlier in the year they attempted to recruit Montgomery County Commission chairman Josh Shapiro but failed. Largely because of Rep. Bob Brady’s (D-PA-1) behind-the-scenes work, McGinty is now an official candidate.
But can McGinty actually overtake Sestak? Before serving Gov. Tom Wolf (D) for less than a year, McGinty was the state Environmental Protection Agency director before running for governor herself in 2014. She fared badly as a candidate, placing fourth in a field of four Democratic candidates and attracted less than eight percent of the statewide vote. The winner, in a landslide, was then-businessman Wolf who would later defeat Republican incumbent Tom Corbett.
From this rather wobbly political base, McGinty now hopes to overtake Sestak for the senatorial nomination with what appears to be reasonably strong institutional party support. It is clear, however, that she is an underdog against Sestak.
For all his faults as a candidate, he still managed to hold Toomey to only a 51-49 percent victory in a strong Republican year of 2010. Almost immediately after his loss the former two-term congressman and US Navy Admiral announced that he would run in 2016, and has been building a campaign ever since.
Though Pennsylvania has been trending decidedly Democratic in presidential election years, Sen. Toomey will not be easy to beat. He has more than $8.3 million in the bank as compared to Sestak’s $2.1 million, and McGinty just getting started. At this point, Toomey’s favorability ratings are relatively strong as is his ballot test polling.
The Pennsylvania race is so important to the Democrats because they require four seats to regain the Senate majority they lost in 2014. Having to protect what is becoming a very tenuous Nevada seat, Democrats must then convert four Republican states if they hold the presidency, and five if they do not. Challenges are breaking well for them in Illinois and potentially Wisconsin, but winning four seats is still a tall order despite the fact that the GOP must defend 24 seats versus the Democrats who risk just 10.