The answer to the question of which Democratic candidate is best poised to take on Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in the general election in November depends on whom you ask.
“There are different opinions on who should take on Toomey,” said a local source immersed in Democratic politics who asked not to be identified. “Some people think that [Joe] Sestak is poised because he came very close to defeating Toomey last time [in 2010], and he only needs a few more percentage points in a year where there is a presidential election and more Democratic voters will be turning out to vote.”
Sestak, a retired Navy admiral who served two terms in Congress before narrowly losing a bid for the Senate to Toomey, will be facing off against Gov. Tom Wolf’s former chief of staff, Katie McGinty, and Braddock Mayor John Fetterman in the primary in April.
Also on the ballot will be Joe Vodvarka, a small business owner who has never held public office.
But Sestak may have a hard time defeating Toomey, according to the Democratic source.
“I’m not a fan of rematches,” he said. “They usually don’t work out well. Going against the other guy six years later doesn’t really work.”
Sestak said in an interview that he is not focused on his primary opponents but instead on “what I can do to serve the people and what Sen. Toomey is not doing to serve the people. … My life has been about service.”
It may well be McGinty, though, who has the best chance to defeat Toomey, according to the Democratic source.
“There are those who say that McGinty is a woman, and this may be the year of the woman,” he said. “If Hillary [Clinton] is the nominee, there will be a lot of national support, and Democrats will turn out and vote for Hillary. They say Katie may be swept along.”
But McGinty launched a failed campaign for Pennsylvania governor in 2014, which may work against her.
“She ran a horrible campaign for governor,” said the source. “Lots of people think she is not a good campaigner. They think she’s whiny. And she talks a lot about her family growing up in Philadelphia. Pittsburgh could care less about her Philadelphia family.”
McGinty does have a talent for fundraising, which could give her an advantage.
“She has raised about $1 million this quarter, and she is raising money all over the country,” noted the source.
McGinty was not available for an interview with The Chronicle, but responded to a few questions via email, explaining why she was the right person to be representing Pennsylvanians in the Senate. In that response, she focused on expanding economic opportunity by investing in education, cutting college costs, ensuring available and affordable health care and preserving Social Security and Medicare.
The colorful Fetterman, who has been working to revitalize the economically depressed Braddock, is widely considered a “wild card” in the primary race, according to the Democratic source, but he may have hurt his chances by publicly endorsing Bernie Sanders for president.
“I have problems with Fetterman endorsing Sanders,” the Democratic source said. “I don’t think he should do that during a primary.”
Fetterman, he said, “takes votes away from Sestak and makes it more possible for Katie to win. I think the whole race is a toss-up.”
Fetterman did not make himself available to The Chronicle for an interview. And his campaign did not respond to questions sent via email.
With Pennsylvania tending to turn blue, the Senate race will be “very interesting,” according to Kristin Kanthak, associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. “Toomey is in real trouble here,” she said. “The Democrats are paying a lot of attention to this race.”
Kanthak attributes Pennsylvania’s Democratic shift to the campaign successes of President Barack Obama.
“One of the things we know about Obama’s campaigning is that he brings new voters to the voting booth,” she said. “And they come back. In 2008, we saw new voters, and they came back to vote [in 2012]. This is of concern to the Republicans in Pennsylvania because Pennsylvania is in danger of not being purple anymore, but blue.”
Any Democratic candidate who emerges successful in the primary will “be in a good place to take on Toomey,” Kanthak said, because he or she will garner a lot of national support. That said, Kanthak believes it is McGinty who will have the edge in the primary.
“Establishment candidates tend to do better,” she said. “In this case, that’s McGinty. She has the backing of some of the power brokers in the country.”
Notwithstanding a perceived Pennsylvania shift toward blue, Real Clear Politics’ aggregate of the most recent poll numbers from last fall show Toomey defeating Sestak by 10 points, and a 12 point Toomey advantage over McGinty. Toomey had raised $9.6 million by the end of 2015, according to information reported by the Tribune-Review.
Stuart Rothenberg, founding editor and publisher of the nonpartisan political newsletter, The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report, agrees that it is McGinty who beltway Democrats believe will triumph in the primary, although “she has a lot to prove,” he said. The prevailing wisdom is that she would provide the best contrast to Toomey.
Kanthak ranks Sestak as the candidate second most likely to win the primary and Fetterman third.
But there is a “mixed opinion about Sestak,” according to Rothenberg, “even within the Democratic party.”
Whether a Democratic candidate can topple Toomey will also depend on which Republican candidate ends up at the top of the ticket.
“Particularly in Pennsylvania, if it’s [Ted] Cruz, for example, that would be fatal for Toomey,” Rothenberg said.
While the majority of Jews tend to focus on social isues during elections, all three Democratic candidates are nonetheless “pretty good on Israel,” according to The Chronicle’s Democratic source.
“Jews care a lot about social issues,” he said. “They care about the separation of church and state, education, health care, women’s rights, LGBT rights, civil rights. While there are some single-issue Israel voters, that is a small minority. Jews are fairly liberal with the exception of the Orthodox, who can be fairly conservative.”
But for those who put Israel, foreign policy and terrorism at the top of their list of issues in the coming election, the Democratic candidates contrast starkly with Toomey who has been stressing the danger of the Iran deal in recent speeches. Those issues could resonate deeply with a lot of Pennsylvania voters, including Jews who are growing increasingly uneasy in light of months of daily terror attacks in Israel.
A Gallup poll last month following the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., found that 16 percent of Americans ranked terrorism as the nation’s biggest problem, the most of any issue.
For Toomey, recent actions of the Obama administration have “emboldened” Iran, a funder of the terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas and a regime that has threatened Israel’s very existence.
In an interview with The Chronicle, Toomey was critical of Iran’s distribution last week of photos showing the 10 detained American sailors on their knees with their hands behind their heads and a video showing them apologizing.
“That was designed to humiliate the United States and send a message that Iran can act with impunity, and the United States will do nothing about it,” the senator said. “Any clear-minded assessment would be that this is even worse than it looks.”
Toomey remains critical of the Iran deal that already has allowed for the release of billions of dollars to the regime and “puts Iran on the path to nuclear weapons with the tacit acceptance of the United States.”
The Iran deal, he said, is a “complete disaster,” which Iran has already violated.
In contrast, all three Democratic candidates have endorsed the deal.
The U.S. relationship to Israel has been weakened since Obama took office, Toomey said.
“Israel is such a close and consistent ally,” he said. “It’s important that you stand by your allies. Western civilization is under attack. The terrorists are trying to undermine that civilization. Israel is part of us. We have an obligation to defend ourselves, which also means defending Israel. The president’s suggestion that there is a moral equivalence between the terrorists attacking Israel and Israel defending itself is a moral outrage.”
Although Sestak admitted he does not trust Iran, he maintains “Israel and America are more secure today because of [the deal]. We were within 30 days of Iran having at least one nuclear bomb. Now, they are set back at least a year.”
Likewise, McGinty also stands by the deal.
“I’m still a proponent of the Iran deal as it is critical to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” she said in an email. “But this doesn’t mean we should turn a blind eye as Iran violates U.N. resolutions. We better ensure Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA when we comply with other key obligations as well. I believe the Obama administration must act unilaterally or with our European allies to enforce U.N. resolutions with the real consequences that make clear to Iran’s leaders that violations will not be tolerated.”
She did not respond to a follow-up question inquiring at what point should the administration act to impose “real consequences.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.