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Pennsylvania Democrats Get a Senate Candidate — and a Primary

Two Democrats are vying to take on Toomey. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Pennsylvania Democrats say they're unsure how divisive the forthcoming Senate primary will get or how impactful it will prove in achieving the party's ultimate goal of defeating Republican Sen. Patrick J. Toomey and winning back the Senate.  

Katie McGinty's resignation Thursday as chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf sets up a nomination battle for a must-win seat. Her decision to run is a score for national Democrats, who had searched for an alternative to Joe Sestak, a quirky former Navy admiral and ex-congressman who lost a close race to Toomey in 2010. "They're both very strong Democrats who have good views on litmus test issues, so in a race like that, those types of races tend to get much more personal, quickly," Pennsylvania Democratic operative Michael Bronstein said.  

Democrats who spoke with CQ Roll Call expect McGinty, who worked as an environmental adviser to Vice President Al Gore and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, will be formidable in the primary and believe she gives the party a good chance in November 2016.  

Her most recent run for office doesn't necessarily portend success. McGinty finished fourth in a four-way gubernatorial primary in 2014. But Democrats say she impressed many in the party with her charisma and performance in debates. It's what led Wolf to select McGinty as the leader of a political action committee supporting his general-election campaign and later as his top adviser in the governor's office.  

"Katie’s work has [helped] lay the course for my administration, and I greatly appreciate her efforts to fix our schools, create jobs and build a better Pennsylvania," Wolf said in a statement Thursday.  

Democratic operatives say her ties to Wolf, a popular figure among the Democratic base, could endear her to voters and provide her with a fundraising network.  

"When you gotta [raise money] in those small batches, it’s not easy. ... Pennsylvania donors are probably going to want to see a signal from Gov. Wolf that he’s in her corner," said Larry Ceisler, a prominent Philadelphia-based Democrat. "And believe me, for a lot of Democrats who contribute, giving money against Joe Sestak is not going to be a stretch."  

Pennsylvania is also one of 22 states that has never had a female senator, according to the Senate Historical Office. That's a point McGinty, along with EMILY's List — a group that backs Democratic women who support abortion rights — could play up.  

"I think that’s likely to be something that will both energize people and differentiate her, again both in a primary and if she makes it to the general," said Democratic consultant Charlie Lyons, a former state director to Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey.  

As for Sestak, Democrats both in Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania have been public about their hesitancy with his candidacy. The disconnect was evident this month, as McGinty attended a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee retreat in Martha's Vineyard, while Sestak declined the committee's invitation .  

The former two-term congressman's formal campaign launch in March was immediately followed by a month spent walking more than 400 miles across the state, an expedition he wrote a book about. And while Pennsylvania Democrats cede the idea was unique, they said the stunt is indicative of Sestak's renegade approach to politics and questioned whether it was the best use of his time more than a year from the election, when few voters are tuned in.  

Still, few are underestimating Sestak, who defeated party-switching Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2010 primary, despite Specter's support from the entire Democratic establishment. He never really left the campaign trail after his general election loss five years ago, giving him a loyal base of supporters. Plus, he's got a fundraising head start, amassing a $2.2 million war chest as of June 30.  

National Democrats privately supportive of McGinty are unlikely to publicly pick favorites early on. A costly primary would inevitably put the nominee at an immediate disadvantage against Toomey, a skilled politician and fundraiser with $8.3 million in cash on hand as of last month.  

"Look, I think it’s always better to be able to hoard your resources 'til the general," Lyons said. "But I think there will be a lot of opportunities, both in state and out of state, to be able to go after dollars just because of the fact that Senator Toomey is viewed as being so vulnerable."  

Pennsylvania's Senate race is rated Tilts Republican by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call.  

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