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Senate candidates battle in Western Pennsylvania

| Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016, 11:00 a.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Senior United States Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren (right) and Democratic Senatorial Candidate Katie McGinty wave to the crowd when the two appeared at the Connolly Ballroom at Alumni Hall on University of Pittsburgh campus, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Democratic Senatorial Candidate Katie McGinty speaks to the crowd at the Connolly Ballroom at Alumni Hall on University of Pittsburgh campus, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Senior United States Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren speaks to the crowd on the University of Pittsburgh campus to stump for Democratic Senatorial Candidate Katie McGinty, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The crowd reacts to Senior United States Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren when the senator appeared on the University of Pittsburgh campus to stump for Democratic Senatorial Candidate Katie McGinty, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Senior United States Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren speaks to the crowd on the University of Pittsburgh campus to stump for Democratic Senatorial Candidate Katie McGinty and Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Senior United States Senator from Massachusetts, Elizabeth Warren shakes hands with supporters when the senator appeared on the University of Pittsburgh campus to stump for Democratic Senatorial Candidate Katie McGinty and Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016.
Pennsylvania U.S. Senate candidates Democrat Katie McGinty, left, and Republican Sen. Pat Toomey take part in a debate on Oct. 24, 2016, at Temple University in Philadelphia.

The most expensive U.S. Senate campaign in American history rolled into Western Pennsylvania on Wednesday with stops at two suburban Pittsburgh restaurants and a University of Pittsburgh ballroom.

About $145 million has been spent on the race between incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, and Chester County Democrat Katie McGinty, Federal Election Commission records showed as of midday Wednesday. That included $110.8 million in spending by outside groups not affiliated with the candidates' campaigns, most of it on television advertising.

North Carolina's 2014 Senate race previously drew the most outside money at $80.7 million.

"It's getting hard to watch TV in the Toomey household, I can tell you that," Toomey said during a morning stop at Bob's Diner in the Pittsburgh suburb of Castle Shannon, alluding to the torrent of ads that are dominating commercial breaks.

Toomey and McGinty came to Western Pennsylvania with other senators to help them make a case for their campaigns, currently locked in a virtual dead heat. RealClearPolitics' polling average showed that Toomey leads by 1.8 percentage points.

Toomey's campaign spent $18.5 million through Sept. 30, while McGinty's spent $9.7 million, records showed.

Republican senators from Louisiana, Colorado, North Carolina and Alaska joined their colleague Toomey at the Castle Shannon diner. They planned to visit an Ambridge diner later.

Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska claimed the honor of having traveled the farthest, and told a small but enthusiastic invitation-only crowd at Bob's Diner that should give them a sense of the importance of the election.

"The balance of the U.S. Senate is likely to turn on what happens in this race," Sullivan said. Republicans currently hold a 54-46 majority.

Toomey, completing his first term in the Senate, said "people are beginning to recognize me" because of all negative campaign television ads. "When Congress has an 11 percent approval rating, and that's primarily family and friends, it creates some awkward moments."

Toomey shared an anecdotal story about a recent visit to Home Depot, where a man approached him and asked, "Anyone ever tell you that you look like Pat Toomey?"

"Yeah, I've heard that before," Toomey said he replied, to which the man said, "That must be infuriating!"

The anecdote amused the crowd, but also underscored the challenge he faces.

Toomey himself admits he's in a tight spot. He needs Democrats to vote for him in order to win. Normally that would not be a major hurdle for a Republican senator with a record of bipartisan work and a gun control endorsement from Gabby Giffords, but with Donald Trump at the top of the Republican ticket, Toomey has struggled to distance himself from Trump's more outrageous statements without alienating their mutual base. Toomey has been critical of many of the statements, but has refused to say whether he'll vote for Trump.

Toomey's speech was briefly interrupted by a woman who demanded he address issues important to women and working families. The crowd quickly shouted her down.

Although Toomey did not address the issues raised by the woman while at the diner, he said previously: "I feel very strongly that women ought to get every opportunity and the same level of compensation as men."

At the University of Pittsburgh, U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a virtual rock star among progressives, campaigned with McGinty. Both skewered Toomey for not saying whether he'll vote for Trump.

"(Toomey) has said he has disagreements with Donald Trump. He has differences. Well, isn't that dainty? Isn't that delicate?" McGinty said.

Added Warren: "(Toomey) knows who Donald Trump is, but he just doesn't have the courage to say plainly, 'Donald Trump cannot be president of the United States' … Come on, Pat Toomey. Stand up for women, stand up for decency. You cannot hide out forever. People have had it with creepy guys like Donald Trump and cowards like Pat Toomey."

Aside from trying to associate Toomey with Trump, Warren tried to closely tie Toomey to special interests on Wall Street.

"I wish Pat Toomey were part of the solution - I genuinely do - but he's not. He is part of the problem," Warren said. "He started his career as a Wall Street investment banker and he's been helping his rich and powerful friends every chance he gets."

Warren said McGinty and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton would "fight for Pennsylvanians (because) they come from hard-working Pennsylvania families. These are two tough, smart women."

Among this year's 34 Senate races, Nevada is a distant second to Pennsylvania with $78.9 million in outside spending, FEC records showed.

Outside spending has exploded since 2010, when groups such as Citizens United won court decisions allowing corporations, unions and individuals to make unlimited contributions to Super PACs as long as the groups don't deal directly with candidates or political parties. The Citizens United decision also loosened restrictions on 501(c)'s, which can accept unlimited contributions but don't have to identify donors.

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