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Tough race takes shape for Democrats seeking to topple Toomey

| Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, 10:57 p.m.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Former government official Katie McGinty talks to Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto (center) and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle (right) as they walk in the Pittsburgh Labor Day Parade, Downtown, on Monday, Sept. 7, 2015.
Former Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania wants to challenge U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey in 2016. Toomey beat Sestak in 2010 by 2 percentage points.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, 46, vowed to “take our Braddock values to Washington, D.C.” when he made his candidacy for the U.S. Senate official on Monday, Sept. 14, 2015.

A vigorous race is shaping up in Pennsylvania for three Democrats competing to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey.

The candidates — former Rep. Joe Sestak of Delaware County, the 2010 nominee; Katie McGinty, former chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf and the establishment party pick; and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, a latecomer — have four months to win over voters and raise enough money to compete with Toomey's war chest, which held $8.6 million in the last report, at the end of 2015's third quarter.

“I think this is going to be a hard-fought race, where you see Sestak carving out support with traditional Democrats, McGinty attracting institutional support, and nothing should be taken for granted where Fetterman garners support, if his candidacy takes off,” said Marcel Groen, chairman of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

Mike-Frank Epitropoulos, a professor with the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Sociology, sees the potential for shakeup in this year's elections.

“Just as we have seen institutional parties and candidates begin to go down in Europe and around the world — because they seem aloof or elitist and don't address the needs of the average person — so we may see electoral surprises in Pennsylvania and beyond,” Epitropoulos said.

Fetterman's populist message might resonate with people, but it's unclear whether he could “ignite the majority of the electorate that has not been part of any ‘recovery,' in terms of jobs, wages and other bread-and-butter daily life issues,” Epitropoulos said.

Each of the candidates should take care not to alienate disaffected voters, he said.

Groen expects that Toomey, despite his understated demeanor, will be formidable in November's general election: “He will clearly have more money, and he has behaved in a safe zone.”

Toomey, 54, of the Lehigh Valley narrowly edged out Sestak in 2010. In recent fundraising emails to supporters, the Toomey campaign warns that “Washington Democrats know that they must win the Senate race in Pennsylvania to take back Senate majority.”

Sestak, 64, declared his candidacy in March and finished the past quarter with $2.4 million in the bank.

McGinty, 52, of Chester County entered the race in August. She raised $1 million in the first seven weeks of her campaign and declared $892,000 on hand in October. Her chief supporter and fundraiser is former Gov. Ed Rendell, under whom she was secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Fetterman, 46, whose wild-card candidacy captured some early national attention, declared he was running two weeks before the filing deadline. He raised $169,000 and acknowledges he faces a challenge to raise cash from traditional donors. He'll seek their money but also concentrate on smaller donations, he said.

“Voters should expect to see me in a hometown near them,” said Fetterman, whose goal is to win over individuals — some of them through social media. “I am running a legitimate grassroots campaign that will take the message to the people.”

His core message, Fetterman said, “is that every community deserves a champion, and if voters take a good look at the three of us running, of who best represents the true average Pennsylvanian, the choice will come down to me.”

He had to persuade his family in York to change party registration to vote for him. “I come from a family of Republicans,” he said.

Pennsylvania holds a closed primary in which voters can cast ballots only for their registered party. Statewide, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 1 million; about 680,000 people claim no affiliation and 440,000 others are registered with lesser parties.

Fetterman said he emphasizes environmental concerns, pay equity and social justice issues when he meets people.

“I am the only candidate who has an actual sitting day job,” he said. “(The others) get to campaign full time.”

McGinty, who also worked for President Bill Clinton, finished last in the 2014 Democratic primary for governor. She said she talks with voters about how to create jobs, preserve entitlements, make health care and college more affordable for the average Pennsylvanian, and to ensure equal pay for women.

“For too long, Pennsylvania's middle class and working families have gotten the short end of the stick,” she said. “I will put the needs of families and children ahead of partisan bickering and special interests.”

As one of nine children who grew up in a working-class family, McGinty said she understands the challenges people face: “My experience creating jobs in the private sector, and working across partisan lines in government, makes me uniquely qualified to get things done.”

The Sestak campaign did not respond to requests for an interview or information. But his website spells out positions on energy and the environment, foreign policy and national security, working families and labor, Alzheimer's disease and health care security, addiction and recidivism, the unemployed, military families and others.

Sestak's campaign theme, “Walking in Your Shoes,” recounts his more than 400-mile trek across Pennsylvania to talk with voters about responsible leadership and Americans' common purpose.

But come November, Groen said, the biggest impact on the Senate race may be the person at the top of the ticket for each political party.

“If it is Hillary Clinton, she remains very popular in this state, not just with Democrats but with crossover voters,” Groen said. “If the Republicans pick (Donald) Trump, then it's trouble for Toomey. But if they go with someone more even-keeled, then our candidate will have to face hurdles, too.”

Salena Zito is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at

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