The experts rate the Pa. Democrats’ Senate primary
Political analysts Alan Novak and T.J. Rooney look at the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania, where Braddock Mayor John Fetterman; Katie McGinty, the former chief of staff to Gov. Wolf; and former Rep. Joe Sestak are vying for the Democratic nomination to challenge Sen. Pat Toomey.
Novak: Pennsylvania’s Senate race will be one of the top two or three campaigns in the country. This is one of the races that will determine if the Democrats have a chance to take the Senate back from the Republicans. Katie McGinty has wound up every major Democratic endorsement that you can have and she still trails in the polls. Although the largest number in the polls is still the undecided number, we all know this year has been all about an antiestablishment election dynamic. The test of that theory in Pennsylvania will be in this primary.
Rooney: Let me be up-front and fully disclose that I consider Katie a friend and I was a chairperson of her race for governor two years ago. I realize that anything I say might be viewed with a different prism, but look, this race is just beginning to take shape. If there is air in the political balloon, 98 percent of it has been sucked out by the presidential primaries going on around us. The beginning of April is just that – the beginning.
While this year has been widely viewed as the year of the outsider, I believe this race will be determined in terms of the way people line up. Sestak has been the nominee of the party before and essentially continued to campaign for seven years since. At this stage of the game, he should have an insurmountable lead. The fact that the race is just coming into focus and his lead is evaporating tells me that, in spite of the antiestablishment mood, the establishment is going to make a difference in this race.
Novak: Matchups matter and, from the perspective of a general election, the better matchup for Toomey’s reelection is the guy he beat last time. I am sure he would prefer to run against Sestak than McGinty for many reasons – not the least of which is the dynamic that is going to play out in the presidential election. McGinty has the edge, and the momentum right now is in her favor. In politics, late momentum is the best momentum.
Rooney: Right. No one can tell me that, in a Democratic primary in Pennsylvania, the endorsements of the president of the United States, our incumbent Democrat U.S. senator, governor, and virtually every leading labor organization don’t matter. They do! And they will be organized and executing a game plan on primary day for the candidate they view is capable of winning.
Novak: I see personality, rather than issues, driving the Democratic outcome. It is well-known that not a lot of Democrats like Sestak. They didn’t six years ago and all these endorsements tell me they still don’t like him. The Bernie Sanders dynamic is also out there too. John Fetterman’s candidacy is a blatant attempt in my opinion to try to ride that wave.
Toomey isn’t invisible either. He is on TV and is starting to inoculate against the attacks that are eventually going to come. He is running ads on softer issues – issues that make him likable, that make him somebody that is looking out for children and citizens’ safety. He is also emphasizing this bipartisan profile he has staked out in the Senate with his work with West Virginia’s Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, which will help in the fall.
Rooney: I believe firmly that Republican interests will play a part in the Democratic primary – as has now become the norm in a lot of states, most glaringly Missouri’s Claire McCaskill’s entry in the primary for her seat a few years ago. I think you’ll see Republican money being spent on behalf of Sestak. Fetterman’s involvement in the race is important too. He has an incredible story and is a fascinating person and is captivating in so many ways. His presence in this race will be felt and he is not to be disregarded.
Novak: Fetterman makes this a race where regions count. He is from the west and could impact western votes enough to offset what Sestak might have out there. Polling shows that Sestak has an advantage in his home base of Southeastern Pennsylvania – which is also McGinty’s home base. This is also the most important region in the general election – so if Fetterman plays better in the west, that will be a factor. Gender could also be a spoiler for Sestak. Usually when it is two men and one woman – the second man is the spoiler for the other man – and it helps the woman.
Rooney: All those factors will weigh importantly in this race – but most important will be TV. Sestak and McGinty will both have the money and between now and election day you always see one or the other on TV. McGinty and Sestak are basically running at similar buy levels across the state. That will continue. The difference in TV will be the entrance of other groups trying to influence the outcome in some ways obvious and in some cases not so obvious. That will make a difference.
But, at the end of the day, winning is what people care about. In politics, winning is hugely important – not just for the sake of winning – but in this case for the sake of the direction of the nation. Political behavior is a lot like basic human behavior. You place a lot of bets the same way you do in your basketball brackets. Plain and simple, you pick who you think is going to win.
Alan Novak and T.J. Rooney are principals of RooneyNovak Group Bipartisan Solutions and appear together regularly to discuss political issues and debate policy. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.