Alan Novak and T.J. Rooney discuss the U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania between Republican incumbent Pat Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie McGinty.
Novak: Pennsylvania is ground zero not just in the presidential race but also for the balance of power in the United States Senate. Nationally, the outcomes of about seven Senate seats are going to determine whether Republicans retain the majority or Democrats gain the majority. Of those seven, probably four are already decided – two are going Republican and two are going Democrat. Democrats need to win two races, and Pennsylvania is one of them.
Rooney: Turn on any television in Pennsylvania and we all see that this race will largely determine who controls the Senate. The airwaves are loaded with messages, which are part of any race that has a national focus. But, in the end, the election will come down to what happens on the ground, in the state, on Election Day. That outcome will be largely determined by Pennsylvania’s nuances, and those are multifaceted and worthy of our attention.
Novak: This state couldn’t be more diverse, especially in how the presidential race is playing out in the regions. That’s important to the Senate race. Places like the northeast in Hazleton, Wilkes-Barre, and Scranton, and the northwest and southwest in counties like Beaver and Washington, are Trump territory because Democrats are supporting Donald Trump. In the southeast and the Lehigh Valley, Hillary Clinton is strong even with certain demographic groups of Republicans. Overlay those regional issues with the fact that voters are more likely to pull a straight party ticket than split their ticket and you start to see the challenges both Senate candidates face.
Rooney: Southwestern Pennsylvania is particularly fertile ground for Trump because they have built the campaign on the theme that overregulation has killed jobs, particularly when you talk about coal mining. That does not mean that it’s fertile ground for Toomey. An interesting dynamic here speaks to McGinty’s work as secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection under Gov. Ed Rendell.
Many people in the southwest view McGinty very differently as a Democrat. I was struck when she ran for governor how well-received she was by the United Mine Workers union but also by the people who hold senior positions in coal companies. So there are regional differences, but McGinty is going to outperform Clinton in some areas based on her ability to build upon the relationships that have been hers for many, many years.
Novak: Toomey is going his own way in this race and making his case a personal one. He has been his own man in the Senate. He has worked in a bipartisan fashion with senators like Joe Manchin (D., W.Va.). He is touting what he’s done on gun issues and background checks. He is talking about what he’s done on advocacy issues around certain illnesses. It’s almost the way former U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter used to campaign. Specter used to run those commercials that made you think: “Man, there isn’t someone in Pennsylvania that he didn’t help.” Toomey is running that kind of campaign. It’s Toomey-centric, not Republican-centric.
Rooney: One thing that impressed me about Specter more than any other politician I have ever met was his constituent service operations. I don’t think Toomey or anybody’s constituent operation comes close to mirroring Specter’s. It’s true, Toomey has done much to position himself as a moderate along the lines of former Sens. Specter and John Heinz, and former Gov. Tom Ridge. The problem is that his record doesn’t bear that out. So while it makes sense for hard-core conservative Republicans to position themselves as moderate when seeking reelection, McGinty will aggressively point out how Toomey will tell his story one way but is doing something completely different. It’s setting up for a close race.
Novak: The best scenario for Toomey is a close outcome in the presidential race. Two, three, four points and I don’t think it has an impact. Five points? It starts to. We are at that cusp right now with Clinton inching ahead in the polls. So, what does Toomey have to do? He has to make McGinty the unacceptable alternative, as Trump is doing to Clinton. He has to identify where his votes are in a Trump-rich territory and make sure he gets them. He has to identify where his votes are in Clinton-rich Republican territories, like in the middle-of-the-road counties in the Lehigh Valley and the southeast, and make sure he gets them, even if Trump doesn’t. That’s a grassroots challenge, but it will be the difference between winning and losing.
Rooney: Which leads me to conclude that McGinty is the odds-on favorite to win. Although Toomey has not yet disavowed Trump, there is seemingly a tremendous amount of daylight between Trump and Toomey. There is practically no daylight between McGinty and Clinton. It is a pleasurable exercise to go out and look for volunteers to campaign on behalf of both of them. Democrats have two candidates we can be proud of. Toomey doesn’t have that luxury. He has to stay as far away from Trump as one would stay away from the bubonic plague, and that makes the job of organizing the grassroots that much more difficult.
Novak: In the 10 counties between Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley, and Lancaster, the Toomey strategy is to get every Republican vote he can even regardless of what they are doing for president. He will stay on TV in the west with the idea that those folks who are Democrat and voting Trump are just going to push a straight Republican ticket. Everywhere in between, it will be about turning out that traditional, always-can-be-counted-on Republican vote in droves.
Rooney: Toomey is being asked to walk, chew gum, cut his hair with a Flowbee, and get Democrats to do something that many will find impossible all at once. McGinty’s job is much easier. All she and her campaign have to do is encourage Democrats to come out and vote and to be absolutely wedded to the efforts of bringing that vote out – and she is.
Alan Novak and T.J. Rooney are principals of RooneyNovak Group Bipartisan Solutions and appear together regularly to discuss political issues and debate policy. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Note: This column first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer Currents section on October 9, 2016.
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