3 Pa. Dems in Senate race attack each other in debate
HARRISBURG — The three Democrats running for a chance to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey attacked each other in the most direct ways thus far in a debate Tuesday night, at times talking over the moderator to get in the final word.
The intensity of the fast-moving debate reflected a campaign that is entering its last three weeks, and it put on stark display the candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. It also brought out several charges of parsing the truth or flip-flopping.
Given short response times, candidates John Fetterman, Katie McGinty and Joe Sestak at times struggled to fully answer questions or fully respond to their attackers.
The race has increasingly turned to their backgrounds and experience rather than their stances on issues that tend to be similar. But efforts to get a leg up on the issues also emerged.
Who is most compromised by his or her stance on the natural gas industry, who is the biggest champion for a minimum wage increase and who will fight efforts to weaken Social Security benefits were among the subjects batted around during the hour-long debate.
Meanwhile, the candidates also worked to show authenticity, particularly with Fetterman falling back on his ground-level work as the three-term major of impoverished Braddock to improve the lives of the desperate.
“You can’t just say it, you have to live it,” Fetterman said.
Sestak, a retired Navy rear admiral, repeatedly pointed out that he chose to teach and work in the nonprofit community after he left Congress in 2011 rather than taking six- or seven-figure lobbying jobs. McGinty, who has served in high-level posts in the state and federal governments, repeatedly fell back on her considerable endorsements, including from labor unions, President Barack Obama and environmental advocacy groups, and her parents’ backgrounds as a Philadelphia police officer and a waitress.
They also answered questions on incarceration rates, the Apple vs. FBI privacy fight and the use of ground troops in Syria.
The candidates’ attacks Tuesday night were largely rehashed but were aired for the first time in a setting where all three were present and could respond directly.
The debate became charged early when front-runner Sestak was given a chance to respond to attacks launched this week by McGinty allies about his stance on raising the Social Security retirement age. Sestak said the suggestion that he had supported raising the retirement age was false.
But McGinty returned to the point, suggesting that Sestak’s laudatory statements about a 2010 deficit-reduction plan from a commission created by Obama meant that he also embraced its recommendation to increase the retirement age. Sestak shot back that he never embraced that idea and said he had voted 41 times as a two-term congressman from suburban Philadelphia to “protect” Medicare and Social Security.
When McGinty pressed the point — even suggesting that he had lined up with tea-party Republicans on the subject — he responded again: “But I never said those words. That’s not the truth.”
At another point, when McGinty suggested that Sestak had supported lax regulation amid the natural gas drilling boom in Pennsylvania, he shot back: “Please don’t mislead, and that’s not right, Katie.”
Later, in his closing statement, he admonished her again: “Katie, I just wish that you had kept it on a positive level.”
The feuding gave an opening to the plainspoken Fetterman to attack Sestak and McGinty as being out of touch, scripted or unable to give straight answers. McGinty, as a primary candidate for governor two years ago, supported a $9-an-hour minimum wage, Fetterman noted.
Fetterman supports a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour, and he suggested that her conversion to supporting a $15 minimum wage is about polling, not personal conviction. She responded that groups, presumably labor unions, fighting for a $15 minimum wage “have endorsed me.”
Later, Fetterman attacked McGinty again, charging that as the state’s environmental protection secretary from 2003 until mid-2008 she “brought fracking to Pennsylvania” and accepted campaign donations from the oil and gas industry. He did not provide a specific example, and she pushed back: “You are accusing me of something that is just not true.”
The primary election is April 26. The debate was hosted by WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh with the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.
This story has been corrected to show Sestak left Congress in 2011, not 2010.