Conservative groups launched the opening salvo in the state’s pivotal U.S. Senate race on Wednesday, a day after Democrats chose Katie McGinty to challenge incumbent Republican Pat Toomey in November.
Toomey’s seat was already seen as one of the most vulnerable in the Senate because Pennsylvania historically leans Democratic in presidential years. And the prospect of Donald Trump at the top of the ticket could further erode his position.
“Control of the U.S. Senate may hinge on our control of this seat,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican political consultant. “You’re going to see a rock ’em, sock ’em battle from now until November.”
The pro-Toomey contingent wasted no time preparing for what will be a multi-million-dollar race.
First, the anti-tax group Club for Growth announced a $500,000 ad buy for a TV ad criticizing McGinty’s use of the “revolving door” between public regulatory jobs and private industry. The ad was expected to begin airing Wednesday.
The McGinty campaign quickly rebuffed the ad, embedded below, denying that the former state environmental secretary ever engaged in lobbying during her time in the private sector and pointing to Toomey’s own activity as a one-time president of Club for Growth.
Those “revolving door” claims aren’t new.
In 2007, she was the subject of a State Ethics Commission opinion over grants the state awarded to a company that employed her husband, an environmental consultant. Following her time in Gov. Ed Rendell’s Cabinet, McGinty joined the boards of several energy companies. Employees of those companies have donated to her gubernatorial and Senate campaigns.
“I think it’s actually very important for someone who aspires to public service to not be a creature of government their whole life,” McGinty told PennLive last month. “It’s important and valuable to have had the experience I have to see what it is to make payroll . . . and the bottom line.”
Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who serves as McGinty’s campaign chair, said he doesn’t know what McGinty did as a private citizen, but doesn’t believe the criticism will sway many voters.
“They can run that ad against every congressman and senator who leaves Washington,” he said.
Although Braddock Mayor John Fetterman periodically referred to McGinty’s private industry experience during the primary campaign, none of her Democratic opponents foregrounded the issue.
Larry Ceisler, a Democratic political analyst, said it’s likely that her opponents polled the issue as a possible campaign tactic.
“My guess it the question didn’t poll well,” he said. “Primaries are different than generals and it’s a different tact.”
As evidenced by the Club for Growth ad, the “revolving door” narrative will likely be a dominant theme of the Republican campaign against McGinty through November.
“I was surprised that both of her opponents pulled their punches in the primary, but, obviously, after we’re passed that, the gloves are off,” Gerow said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a pro-business lobbying group, recruited former Philadelphia Eagle Vince Papale in a TV ad endorsing Toomey.
“My friend Pat Toomey is making a difference, too,” Papale says in the ad. “He fights for Pennsylvanians because he’s one of us. Washing bureaucrats and red tape — fuhgettaboutit.”
It’s unclear how much money the Chamber is spending, but it plans to begin airing the ad on Philadelphia stations on Thursday, the start of the NFL draft. A Chamber spokeswoman described it as a “seven-figure TV buy.”
Ceisler said the pair of ads will be just the beginning of a long road to November.
“Anybody who’s going to run for that Democratic nomination was running with the knowledge that as soon as they were nominated they’d be looking at $20 million in negative ads coming down on them between today and Election Day in November,” he said. “This is probably going to be one of the most expensive races in the country.”
Rendell said he believes McGinty will need to raise between $8 million and $10 million to carry out a “robust campaign” against Toomey, since she already has the advantage in voter registration. The campaign’s own ads will probably come next week, he said.
“They’ll be raising money quickly,” he said of the McGinty campaign. “One thing we learned from Tom Wolf’s election and my election is you can’t let your opponent have the airwaves to him or herself for too long.”
As for independent expenditures like the Club for Growth’s, Rendell said he believes the two camps’ outside ads will likely cancel each other out over the run of the campaign. Regardless, it’s still important to compete, he said.
But all that spending won’t necessary impact the outcome of the race, particularly if the conventional wisdom about the negative down-ballot effect of a possible Trump ticket and the splintering national Republican Party holds.
“Money’s not going to be the issue,” Gerow said. “There will be more money spent on this seat than any other — epic spending — but that’s not going to decide the election. There’s going to be so much money flying around that it’s ultimately who has the best message.”
One example of the limits of spending came in the 2006 U.S. Senate race between Rick Santorum and Bob Casey. At the time, that race set records for fundraising, but Ceisler said the influx of money didn’t significantly change the direction of the race.
The McGinty-Toomey match up could follow a similar pattern.
“My working theory on this race is the biggest factor is going to be the performance of the GOP presidential nominee in Pennsylvania,” Ceisler said. “That is the X factor.”