Splintered Primary is Latest Problem for Pennsylvania Democrats

Pennsylvania Dems in shambles leading into 2016

John Fetterman, Katie McGinty, Joe Sestak / AP
October 15, 2015

Top Senate Democrat Harry Reid downplayed the competitiveness of a primary in Pennsylvania that could damage the Democrats’ chances of winning a Senate seat.

Reid, speaking at a Washington Post event in Las Vegas on Monday, said that Katie McGinty, who resigned as chief of staff for Gov. Tom Wolf (D.) to run for Senate, "is going to win that primary."

"We have a primary in Pennsylvania—which I wish we didn’t, but we do," said Reid. "But we have the governor supporting Katie McGinty, and we have former Gov. [Ed] Rendel. So she is going to win that primary."

Recent polling data coming out of the state paints a different story.

Harper Polling found in September that McGinty was trailing her main primary opponent, Joe Sestak, by 10 percentage points, and a Quinnipiac University poll released last week found that Sestak is ahead of McGinty in other key measures.

McGinty remains largely unknown in the state, with 72 percent of voters saying they don’t know enough about her to say whether they view her favorably. Sestak is also relatively unknown, with 59 percent of voters saying the same.

If the election were held today, Sestak would lose to Republican incumbent Pat Toomey by 15 points and McGinty would lose by 20, according to the poll.

McGinty has also not performed well in recent statewide elections. She ran for governor in 2014, and got less than 5 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary for the seat.

Although Reid argued that McGinty’s support from the eventual winner, Tom Wolf, would help, the poll found that he too is viewed unfavorably by a margin of 41-44 percent. 

A major reason for Wolf’s unfavorable ratings is his failure to bring an end to the state’s current budget stalemate. McGinty, who was in Wolf’s administration until she resigned in late July, was considered to be a major reason that there had been no progress. McGinty’s relationship with Republicans in the legislature was so bad that she was excluded from budget talks.

The budget issue is unlikely to go away. Pennsylvania has not had a budget in place for more than 100 days and Wolf announced this week that "no progress"has been made between his administration and the legislature.

Despite McGinty’s problems, Reid’s comments made it increasingly clear that the party favors her over Sestak, who was the nominee when Democrats lost narrowly in 2010 to Toomey.

The nomination battle was further complicated by the entrance of John Fetterman, the mayor of a small West Pennsylvania town that will be hard for McGinty and Sestak to ignore—and not only because he is 6-foot-8 and covered in tattoos.

Fetterman has received national attention for his unorthodox style in transforming a dying steel town, and he has quickly managed to gain traction among progressives.

His campaign is being run by Bill Hyers, who was the Pennsylvania director of President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign and ran New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s successful mayoral bid. Fetterman showed that he should be taken seriously early by raising an impressive $170,000 just two weeks into his young campaign.

He became the first candidate in the race to hit the television airwaves on Tuesday night, airing a well produced ad during the Democratic primary debate on CNN.

The close primary could become the biggest problem for the state’s Democratic Party, which has already had more than its fair share to deal with this year.

Jim Burn, who had been chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party since 2010, resigned this summer over controversy that stemmed from an internal power struggle with Wolf and McGinty over control of the party.

Voters also widely believe that Kathleen Kane, Pennsylvania’s Democratic attorney general who is facing multiple felony charges, should resign.

Kane is far from the only Pennsylvania Democrat facing legal trouble. Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski, who also intended to run for Senate, had to suspend his campaign after he was implicated in a FBI probe. Rep. Chaka Fatah was indicted on corruption charges this summer. Four Democratic state legislators were also caught accepting money from undercover agents in a sting operation.

Reid said he has high hopes for the Democrats in 2016.

"I think [Pennsylvania is] gonna be a heavily Democratic state for us come Hillary time," said Reid.

Voters in the state may not be as excited for "Hillary time" as he thinks. Recent polls of Pennsylvania voters show that Hillary Clinton would lose against Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Marco Rubio.

Fifty-four percent of voters in the state view Clinton negatively and 61 percent say she is not honest and trustworthy.

Published under: 2016 Election