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Politics & Government

Pennsylvania Democrats Pick McGinty For Senate Candidate

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA

Democrats in Pennsylvania chose their party establishment's choice for a U.S. Senate candidate and rejected an ex-congressman who six years ago nearly won the office.

Katie McGinty, who spent more than a decade as a state and federal environmental policy official, got millions of dollars from the party and its allies that helped her side heavily outspend her rivals. She received endorsements from top Democrats, from President Barack Obama on down.

McGinty defeated second-time candidate Joe Sestak, a retired Navy rear admiral, who party leaders didn't consider a team player. Braddock Mayor John Fetterman finished third. Joseph Vodvarka, who was only recently reinstated to the state ballot, finished far behind in Tuesday's voting.

McGinty will challenge Republican incumbent Pat Toomey in the November election. Toomey was unopposed for the Republican nomination.

The fall contest could tilt control of the Senate.

This is McGinty's second run for statewide office after she finished last in a four-way gubernatorial primary in 2014.

McGinty's side was outspending Sestak's 2-1 in the late stages of the campaign thanks to more than $4 million in outside support, primarily from the party and from Washington-based Emily's List, which backs female candidates who support abortion rights.

She was a member of Gov. Tom Wolf's administration when party leaders recruited her last summer and has close ties to many top Democrats. She had worked for Al Gore, Bill Clinton and former Gov. Ed Rendell.

Credit Noah Brode / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Three-term Braddock Mayor John Fetterman concedes defeat to Katie McGinty before a crowd of dozens of supporters at Braddock brewery Brew Gentlemen on Tuesday, April 26, 2016.

  She beat back sustained criticism from her rivals that she had taken advantage of a revolving door and benefited from energy companies she once regulated.

Sestak, reinforcing his image as a shoe-leather campaigner, walked across the state last year after he formally announced his second candidacy for Senate.

While spurned by the party hierarchy, he was a regular on the local party event circuit around Pennsylvania, and he earned loyalty from rank-and-file activists.

In 2010, Sestak earned the enmity of party leaders by running in the primary and beating party-endorsed candidate Arlen Specter after the longtime Republican U.S. senator switched his registration.

Party leaders complained that Sestak had lost a winnable seat, but his supporters said he had earned another chance to run after doing so well in a strong Republican election year without party leaders' support.

This year, they were determined again to find a candidate to their liking.

As McGinty leaned heavily on Obama's support in her campaign ads, running TV and radio ads featuring the president in Philadelphia, Sestak bashed party leaders. He said he was in a fight "for the soul of the Democratic Party."

Fetterman, the third-term mayor of an impoverished Pittsburgh-area steel town, made a splash in his first statewide race. At 6-foot-8, scowling, bald and tattooed, the plainspoken Fetterman touted himself nationally as the most progressive candidate in the race. He ran an unconventional campaign, greeting voters in bars, rock music venues and hookah lounges.

“We are the progressive standard-bearer for Pennsylvania now, and moving forward, there’s a lot of work ahead," he said, conceding. "But even though our campaign is over, the work we’ve set out to do in this race is going to go on.”

Credit Pennsylvania Department of State
Pennsylvania Department of State
Katie McGinty leads the statewide returns for Pennsylvania's democratic primary for U.S. Senate with 91 percent of precincts reporting. Complete vote totals will be delayed.

Polls last week projected Fetterman to come in with as little as 4 percent of the state Democratic returns. With 91 percent of precincts reporting, he'd garnerded more than 20 percent statewide. He was the clear winner in Allegheny County with 45 percent over McGinty's 35 percent.

Fetterman's wife, Gisele, said her husband spent about $800,000 since he declared his candidacy last year. The other two candidates spent millions.

“To be outspent that drastically doesn’t sound democratic to me," Gisele Fetterman said. "It doesn’t sound fair. I think campaigns should be about issues and should be about your biography and what you’ve really contributed to the society, not about how much money outside groups will put into your campaign.”

Fetterman harkened back to tenets of his campaign.

“We want everybody to remember that black lives matter, that we want to remember that everyone deserves, if you work full time, to have a living wage. They should be able to live with dignity," he said. "We want to remember that we have rights for the LGBT and transgender community.”

Little-known candidate Joe Vodvarka, a semiretired owner of a Pittsburgh-area spring manufacturing shop, had been tossed from the ballot but added back on late in the campaign.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.