Last month, the political world was enthralled by a House speaker’s race that put the rift between the GOP’s establishment and its conservative grassroots on full display. Now, as they fight to pick off one of the more vulnerable Republican senators of the 2016 cycle, Pennsylvania Democrats are getting their own taste of ideological rift.
52-year-old Katie McGinty, a former chief of staff to Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf with a long record in state and national Democratic politics, is one of two leading candidates for the party’s nomination to challenge Republican incumbent Pat Toomey. She’s already lining up the support of Democratic heavyweights in Washington. Last week, Harry Reid predicted a win for McGinty, and slammed her main rival, Joe Sestak, as “an unproductive candidate for us.”
Sestak, a former three-star admiral in the Navy who is much beloved by the party’s grassroots, has been gunning for a Senate seat since his 2010 bid against Toomey. Reid and his colleagues are so hell-bent on keeping him at bay that they’ve embraced McGinty, whose past is checkered by a protracted state ethics investigation.
“The establishment is behind McGinty, but the grassroots — the core of the Democratic party — is die-hard for Sestak,” says Vincent Galko, a consultant at the public-affairs firm Mercury LLC. “It will be interesting to see how much political capital Reid and others want to burn” defending a candidate who “became infamous for having an ethics committee name a rule after her.”
Indeed, Reid’s enthusiastic endorsement papers over McGinty’s pockmarked record as the state’s environmental protection secretary under then-governor Ed Rendell, who currently serves as her campaign chairman. From 2003 to 2007, McGinty awarded $2.6 million in grants to environmental firms that, in 2007, employed her husband, provoking a Pennsylvania ethics-committee investigation and the creation of a statewide law prohibiting cabinet members from channeling grant dollars to their spouses’ employers.
When it became clear that McGinty had bestowed her department’s largesse on two firms that paid her husband, Karl Hausker, $3,700 for consulting work, Republicans in the state Senate cried foul, demanding more time to consider Rendell’s renomination of McGinty to her cabinet post. Rendell balked, complaining that it was “ludicrous” to imply a conflict of interest in the department’s grants, and accusing Republican lawmakers of political theater. But fearing that McGinty couldn’t win reconfirmation, he acquiesced and allowed the Senate GOP to feed the case to the state Ethics Commission.
#share#The seven-member commission, without judging the ethicality of past grants, ruled that McGinty, if she continued to approve grants to companies that employed her husband, would be in violation of state ethics law, and would face up to five-years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Pledging to adhere to the new ruling, McGinty was reconfirmed with a 42-6 vote, but notably opposed by two female Democratic senators from her own backyard in southeastern Pennsylvania. Two years later, the Rendell administration was still reeling, pushing the issue to the state Supreme Court in 2009. The ruling was upheld.
For David Taylor, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association (PMA), the events speak to a “glaring absence of perspective” on McGinty’s part. Taylor’s PMA was among the industry groups that blasted McGinty for heavily regulating mercury emissions from coal plants and toxic emissions from automobiles sold in the state.
‘A McGinty victory would be very bad not just for policy but for our national psyche. . . . I just don’t want to see those actions rewarded.’
“A McGinty victory would be very bad not just for policy but for our national psyche. . . . I just don’t want to see those actions rewarded,” he says.
Steve Kelly, a spokesman for Toomey, adds that, “It’s a sorry statement about Joe Sestak, when the Democratic establishment would prefer over him a candidate . . . who has been rebuked by the state ethics committee and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for funneling tax dollars to her husband.”
McGinty’s camp, however, doesn’t see it as a roadblock to her campaign.
“This is a rehashed Republican attack that has no merit,” says Sabrina Singh, spokesperson for McGinty. “This was looked into and even the Republicans in the Pennsylvania Senate thought there was nothing to it because they reconfirmed Katie by a wider margin than the first time. Voters know that Katie McGinty is fighting for middle-class families and won’t be distracted by reused and old Republican attacks.”
For Sestak, it’s unclear if the ethical cloud trailing McGinty will be enough to thwart the establishment ground game that is already kicking into gear to prop her up.
Sestak, of course, has successfully outmaneuvered Reid and his allies before. In the 2010 Democratic Senate primary, he squared up against incumbent Arlen Specter, who switched parties when it became clear that Toomey would defeat him in the GOP primary. Reid and the rest of the party’s establishment backed Specter, but Sestak — seizing on the powerful, ready-made message that Specter was an opportunist without real liberal loyalties — easily won the race in one of the largest upsets of the cycle.
This time around, Sestak won’t have the luxury of questioning McGinty’s Democratic allegiances — her resume includes stints working for Al Gore and the Clinton administration. But as Galko puts it, McGinty’s run-in with the Ethics Commission raises pointed questions about her professionalism, and in a sphere as high profile as the Senate, he says, “that’s not something you can set aside whenever you please.” Ultimately, it remains her campaign’s most obvious Achilles heel, and it will be up to Sestak — and perhaps later, Toomey — to make it catch fire.
— Elaina Plott is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.
Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated since its initial publication.