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Democrats Target Pennsylvania In Quest To Regain The Senate


Control of the U.S. Senate could be up for grabs this election year, and one state Democrats are targeting is Pennsylvania. Republican Senator Pat Toomey narrowly won his seat in 2010. Democrats think they have a good chance to beat him in a presidential year with higher voter turnout. The Democratic Senate primary is on Tuesday. Dave Davies of member station WHYY reports.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: There's a three-way primary battle with the national party putting more than a million bucks into defeating this guy.


JOE SESTAK: I then ran for Congress for one reason. So I was an independent, became a Democrat, ran in a Republican district almost 2 to 1. And I ran on, national security begins at home in health and education.

DAVIES: That's Joe Sestak, a retired Navy admiral and former congressman who connects with audiences and is a tireless retail campaigner. He barely lost to Toomey six years ago and has been stumping in the state ever since. But party leaders can't stand him because he's a maverick who likes to run his own ship and because six years ago he upset their plans to give the Senate nomination to Arlen Specter, the moderate Republican who’d switched parties to run as a Democrat.

Sestak says he tried last year to mend fences and get party support, but after a conversation with a senator Sestak won't name, he says it was clear the national party wanted too much control.

SESTAK: So when he called me again and at the end of a discussion said, Sestak, whenever I tell you anything, the only answer is to be yes, I said, Senator, I don't mean to push back, but I'm sorry; it just can't work that way.

DAVIES: The national party looked for other candidates and settled on Katie McGinty, a former state environmental official who ran unsuccessfully for governor two years ago. She's an energetic campaigner, and in a state that's never elected a woman to the Senate, party leaders hope she'll be a great fit if Hillary Clinton tops the ticket. She's endorsed by a host of prominent Democrats and labor leaders. Here she's getting the endorsement of the Service Employees International Union.


KATIE MCGINTY: We're going to fight, and we're going to...


MCGINTY: All right, let me tell you who I'm fighting for. I'm fighting for everybody out there working hard today and just trying to take care of their families

DAVIES: McGinty's message is mainstream democratic fare, as is Sestak's. The big difference is who's backing whom. The national Democrats have spent more than a million and a half dollars for McGinty. There is a third candidate in the mix, a big guy who never wears a necktie - and I mean really big.

JOHN FETTERMAN: Tall guy, 6-8-plus, and I have a shaved head. I have tattoos on my arm, and I have a black shirt.

DAVIES: John Fetterman's look reminds you of former wrestler Jesse Ventura. He grew up in a Central Pennsylvania Republican family, went to Harvard's Kennedy School and is now mayor of Braddock, Penn., an aging and impoverished steel town. He's endorsed Bernie Sanders and talks about income inequality but trails Sestak and McGinty in polls.

While a contentious primary isn't what party leaders hoped for, Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, says Democrats will be ready for the general election.

JENNIFER DUFFY: I don't see a lot of damage being done, It's an early contest. They're going to be able to regroup once they have a nominee.

DAVIES: Meanwhile the Republican Toomey isn't sitting still. He has a $9 million campaign fund and is already running TV ads. For NPR News, I'm Dave Davies in Philadelphia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Dave Davies is a guest host for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.