Toomey, McGinty look for vulnerabilities in key Senate race

Associated Press

Money and mud.

Democrat Katie McGinty is challenging incumbent Republican Pat Toomey in a close contest that could help determine which party controls the upper chamber as a new president steps into the White House. That outcome could determine whether the next president’s agenda sails through Congress or is obstructed at every turn.

Katie McGinty is challenging incumbent Pat Toomey for the U.S. Senate seat.

Twenty-four senators are running for re-election and five, including Mr. Toomey, are considered especially vulnerable. Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia Center for Politics both call the race a tossup.

The all-but-certain presidential nomination of Donald Trump, a polarizing figure in the Republican Party, is making it even more challenging for GOP incumbents to hold on to their seats.Expect a lot of both to be thrown around in the combative and well-funded race for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat.

Mr. Toomey, Ms. McGinty and their allies are prepared to saturate the airwaves with political ads as they try to define themselves and each other.

EDITORIAL: Pennsylvania Senate race gets nasty quickly

On Ms. McGinty’s side, the advertising war has already been in full swing for weeks as she battled former congressman Joe Sestak for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Toomey began airing pre-emptive ads weeks ago, too, even though he had no challenger in the Republican primary.

He wants voters to see him as a principled and politically courageous budget hawk whose clear voice cuts across partisan bickering and who isn’t afraid to reach across the aisle to work with Democrats on issues such as gun safety and child abuse.

Ms. McGinty wants voters to see another Pat Toomey: an obstructive political gamesman who puts Wall Street ahead of working families, who supports rolling back environmental regulations, who would dismantle Social Security and who is aligned with a misogynistic, xenophobic presidential nominee.

Ms. McGinty is promoting herself to voters as a champion of the middle class, a protector of Social Security and Medicare and a problem solver who will fight to raise the minimum wage, make college tuition affordable, promote clean energy, protect the environment and support manufacturing.

Since Ms. McGinty isn’t as well known as Mr. Toomey, the senator is trying to seize the chance to introduce his political rival to voters as a self-serving climber with questionable ethics who used political and corporate connections to advance herself.

Both candidates have the financial backing to blast their competing messages across Pennsylvania.

With money still rolling in, Mr. Toomey had raised more than $10.6 million between January 2015 and a month ago when the last campaign finance reports were due. Some $1.5 million of that came from the investment and securities industry, and half of his contributions came from outside Pennsylvania.

Even though he didn’t have a primary challenger, he spent $7 million, according to campaign finance reports. He has $9.1 million left, including money already in his campaign account from previous election cycles.

Ms. McGinty raised $3.8 million and spent $2.8 million in that time period, leaving her with $1 million as of the last filing deadline. Now that she has won the primary, she can expect more money to roll in. So far, retirees ($500,000) and lawyers ($300,000) are her biggest contributors.

But campaign contributions don’t tell the whole story.

Outside groups are also spending big to influence this race. They include both national parties along with (for Ms. McGinty) unions and environmental groups; and (for Mr. Toomey) the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Club for Growth, the conservative political advocacy group he once led as its president. It’s a well-financed campaign with combined spending on track to top the $50 million spent on the 2008 race for the seat.

And both candidates’ partisan bona fides run as deep as their campaign coffers.

Mr. Toomey is chairman of the Senate Republican Steering Committee, the former head of Club for Growth and a senator whom chamber leaders selected to serve on the Joint Select Committee on Debt Reduction, better known as the Supercommittee. He has been endorsed by police unions, business associations and conservatives, including former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina.

Meanwhile, Ms. McGinty has the backing of the country’s most prominent Democrats, including Vice President Joe Biden, who joined her on the campaign trail during her primary. She has been endorsed by labor unions, LGBT groups and pro-choice advocates who are the backbone of the party.

She was an environmental policy adviser to President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, worked briefly for the Democratic National Committee, served as chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf and was state secretary of environmental protection under then-Gov. Ed Rendell, who now is her campaign chairman.

But it’s what she did in between those jobs that could be a trouble spot for her.

After serving in the Rendell Cabinet — whose responsibilities included regulating the environmental impact of energy companies — she served as a paid board member of NRG Energy and Ibderola USA. When she was DEP secretary, Ibderola had received a $10 million federal stimulus grant through the state. As secretary, she had also asked Mr. Rendell to put in a good word for Ibderola with New York’s then-Gov. David Paterson, whose approval was needed for the company to merge with Energy East.

And in 2000, she was an adviser to Glaxo Wellcome, a pharmaceuticals company that was fighting chlorofluorocarbon rules Ms. McGinty herself had helped the Clinton administration write a few years earlier.

All of that has provided fodder for the Toomey campaign, which has been relentless in its portrayal of her as an unprincipled insider who knows how to work the revolving door.

“Katie McGinty has built her entire career on … using her posts in government to enrich herself on corporate boards and her friends with taxpayer dollars,” Ted Kwong, Mr. Toomey’s spokesman, said in a recent statement.

Those corporate ties are Ms. McGinty’s biggest liability going into the general election, and Republicans are capitalizing on it, said Scott Meinke, a political scientist at Bucknell University.

“McGinty is not that well-known, so it’s not surprising to see Toomey’s campaign working early on to define her, and that’s probably their strongest potential line of attack,” he said.

Mr. Toomey has vulnerabilities, too, and they start at the top of his party’s ticket.

“Donald Trump will bring out quite a few Democrats saying, ‘We’re going to do everything we can to make sure he isn’t in the White House,’ ” said Jim Broussard, professor of political history at Lebanon Valley College.

And a lot of Republicans are finding it difficult to support their own party’s nominee. Even House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the country’s highest elected Republican, said he isn’t ready to support Mr. Trump, setting a precedent for other party loyalists who are troubled by Mr. Trump’s values, policies and demeanor.

Mr. Toomey is on the fence. In an opinion piece in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, he said he is “inclined” to support his party’s nominee, but that he is having difficulty reconciling his party loyalty with his disdain for Mr. Trump’s vulgarity, attitude toward women, policy on banning Muslims, disregard for constitutional limits on executive power, neutrality on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and more.

“There could come a point at which the differences are so great as to be irreconcilable. I hope that doesn’t happen, but I have never been a rubber stamp for my party’s positions or its candidates. It is up to Trump to make the case for himself in a way that reassures the millions of Republicans and non-Republicans who have grave doubts about him,” he wrote.

Among rank-and-file voters, staunch Republicans are more likely to skip voting altogether rather than hold their noses and vote for Hillary Clinton, the likely Democratic nominee. And if Republicans don’t show up on Election Day, that’s a big problem for Mr. Toomey.

“Trump is his biggest handicap,” Mr. Broussard said. “It could come down to Republicans staying home and Democrats turning out.”