PHILADELPHIA – West Philadelphia is not where Katie McGinty was born and raised. But the candidate carrying the hopes and dreams of Democratic leaders brought her campaign to this predominantly African-American community this week, picking a busy intersection on a sunny afternoon to shake hands and take pictures.
“She’s the lady who’s never shady. First name Katie!” said Manwell “The Voice” Glenn, a local party operative who spoke rhymes into a bullhorn as he introduced McGinty to the men and women walking past. “McGinty is in the building, ladies and gentlemen!”
A few minutes later, Glenn led the Senate candidate — wearing a robin's egg-blue dress that stood out amid the dark suits of the assembled politicians -- to the commuter train station to meet voters. McGinty came here at the behest of state Sen. Vincent Hughes, an influential Democratic leader from Philadelphia who was on hand to offer his support.
Hughes is just one of many marquee Democrats backing the 52-year-old native of northeast Philadelphia, who has won endorsements from current and former Pennsylvania Democratic governors, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and President Barack Obama.
And they’re doing a great deal more than just inviting her to meet-and-greets: The DSCC, EMILY’s List, and labor unions have spent an eye-popping $4 million on TV and radio ads supporting McGinty, nearly all of it spent in the month before the state’s April 26 primary.
It’s an extraordinary sum to spend on a primary challenger. And it’s being spent on a candidate who’s never won an election of any kind – running against former Rep. Joe Sestak, who’s won a pair battleground races and very nearly claimed victory in a difficult Senate race six years ago.
That discrepancy isn’t lost on some Republicans and Democrats, who have privately and publicly wondered if the massive investment in McGinty is worthwhile.
They point out that the environmental policy guru who has spent most of her career behind the scenes finished a distant last in her one previous primary, and by her own admission, is not a natural campaigner. Adding to the confusion is the fact that, until this week, she has trailed Sestak in most polls despite her edge in institutional support and TV ads.
Most Democrats don’t consider her a weaker candidate against Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey this November, in a state that is crucial to the party's effort to retake the Senate majority in 2017. But they can’t understand why the party has made such an all-hands-on-deck effort to support her instead of using the money to target Republicans, especially given the GOP’s early financial edge.
The opinion is not unanimous, and some Democrats who have worked with Sestak in the past have scathing reviews of what they perceive to be his lack of a modern, professional campaign. But to Sestak supporters, the roughly $2 million spent by the DSCC alone is particularly galling.
“That’s $2 million squandered that now cannot be used against Pat Toomey, no matter who wins,” said Jim Burn, former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party who has endorsed Sestak. “Shame on them.”
Added Burn, who had a bitter fight with McGinty in 2014 over who should run the state party: “If there is a case to be made that Katie is a better general election candidate than Joe Sestak, I haven’t seen anyone make it.”
A Question of Style
It’s no secret many Democratic leaders don’t like Sestak, the party's Senate nominee in 2010 who has a reputation for being dismissive of advice and difficult to get along with.
But he did win a moderate, suburban-Philadelphia House seat in 2006, defeating former Rep. Curt Weldon (thanks in part to FBI agents raiding the home of the incumbent Republican in October, related to an investigation for which he was never charged). Sestak won re-election easily in 2008 and defeated Democratic incumbent Arlen Specter in the 2010 Democratic Senate primary before losing to Toomey by just two points during the historic Republican wave that year.
A retired Navy admiral, Sestak also has credibility on foreign policy, a subject of growing importance to the public amid the rise of ISIS and terrorist attacks at home and abroad. His rhetoric is awkward, even his supporters concede, but they hastened to add that he’s no less polished or charismatic than McGinty.
“She has all the charisma of the plastic pink flamingos people put in their yards, OK?” said Christopher Nicholas, who managed Specter's 2010 campaign. “And no matter how many times she tells people she’s the 9th of 10 children and the daughter of a Philly cop and restaurant hostess, it just doesn’t get any better for her.”
A Meeting with Senate Leaders
Sestak recalls meeting in January 2015 with three leading Democratic senators: DSCC Chairman John Tester of Montana, Harry Reid of Nevada and Charles Schumer of New York. Sestak said he thought he did well, only to discover two weeks later that leaders had reached out to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald about running for Senate.
“One of them said, ‘Joe, you have a reputation for independence. We’re going to have to work on that,’” Sestak recalled.
By April, the Democratic leaders had raced through a handful of alternatives without finding a taker. So they once again met with Sestak, offering support if he accepted their recommendations for campaign manager, finance director and communications head, Sestak said.
He said he was amendable to their list -- especially given that his former campaign manager, his brother Rich, had died in 2014 -- and was encouraged that he’d be taken off the “persona non grata” list with Democratic donors, who had been encouraged not to give to his campaign.
But he says he was later told by a Democratic senator that he was still on probation for another “four or five months.” It was then, in an anecdote he shares often on the campaign trail, that the senator told him that he was to give only one answer when told to do something: “yes,” a demand he found unacceptable.
A spokeswoman for the DSCC declined to comment about Sestak’s version of events, saying that the committee does not discuss candidate recruitment.
Given his history, the former congressman said he’s not surprised about the spending against his campaign. “They’re going to put in everything to beat me,” he said.
In the run-up to next week’s primary, Sestak has forgone traditional campaign appearances, instead conducting media interviews individually and making impromptu appearances at gatherings of Democratic voters. He said he planned this week to attend local Philadelphia ward meetings.
“I often show up unannounced, just to show up and talk,” Sestak said.
His style makes some Democratic strategists uneasy.
"Wild card candidates can be interesting, but Sestak is not an unknown wild card, he's a known one," said Matthew Miller, a Democratic strategist who worked for the DSCC in 2008. "And clearly the lesson learned from last time was that he wasn’t willing to run a professional campaign. When you’re deciding where to invest tens of millions of dollars, as the DSCC is, you have to know that your investment isn’t going to be wasted, and the experience with Sestak is he can’t give you that kind of faith."
Democratic leaders are also optimistic about McGinty, describing her as likeable and well-versed on key policy positions.
She’s also a woman, a potential asset in a year in which the country could elect its first female president.
“We haven’t had a single member of the Senate from Pennsylvania happen to be a woman,” said Sen. Bob Casey, a McGinty supporter, while speaking to a Harrisburg labor union this week on her behalf. “This is the year to do it. This is the year to break that other glass ceiling.”
A Monmouth University Poll released Wednesday found that McGinty and Sestak were tied, at 39 percent. That’s an improvement from polls conducted earlier this month, which found her trailing Sestak by double-digits, and bolsters her allies' claims that she has seized momentum, given the heavy spending and the endorsement from Obama, which has been touted in many of her campaign’s ads.
In an interview, McGinty said she is upbeat that she will prevail. She said she’s able to work out her angst during weekly Tuesday morning boxing classes.
“They have switched it up recently, where they have taken the punching bags away and you’re supposed to team up with a partner and just starting beating the lather out of them. So I have not been as enamored of it. Because I could still use more Popeye spinach,” said McGinty, motioning to her left biceps. “So in terms of who’s getting the lather beaten out of them …”