For the general election in November, few races are as important to the Democrats as the US Senate race in Pennsylvania.
Terry Madonna, the director of the center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College, says it’s one of the seats Democrats have a real chance to re-capture in their effort to take control of the Senate.
“So these are the seats that we’re all gonna be watching pretty closely. Pennsylvania is literally one of the top five,” Madonna said.
Joe Sestak, Katie McGinty and John Fetterman are vying for the shot to square off against incumbent Republican senator Pat Toomey.
But even as we inch closer to the Pennsylvania primary, Madonna says many Democratic voters remain undecided between them.
He said, “To be perfectly candid, I don’t think the differences are that great. All three are progressive, liberal Democrats. Probably on a hundred issues that would come before the United States Senate, they would agree on 98 or 99 of them. I mean, the one that has gotten the most news is of course, on fracking.”
Katie McGinty, the Pennsylvania secretary of environmental protection under Governor Ed Rendell, is the only candidate who doesn’t support an immediate moratorium on fracking. She’s been quoted as saying fracking is “the secret sauce of economic growth.”
McGinty said, “When it comes to fracking, we have to regulate it, we have to zone it, we have to tax it. Key thing is, we need a strong environmental cop on the beat, and that’s what I have ensured in government.”
But the issue might not ding McGinty too much. Polls show it’s not one of the top issues Pennsylvanians care about in this election.
Other concerns, like the push for a $15 federal minimum wage, are taking center stage. All 3 candidates support an increase – but they disagree on how much and when.
John Fetterman, currently the mayor of the impoverished town of Braddock, makes income inequality one of the core tenets of his campaign. He thinks the jump to $15 should be immediate.
“How do we get to $15/hr? We make it $15/hr. Why in this country do we pretend that you can live off, 8 or 9 or 10 dollars an hour?” he said.
Sestak has advocated for a slower approach. “If you look at it, we can go to ten dollars and eighty cent immediately, why? All studies have shown that if you raise the minimum to no more than half the average hourly wage, no jobs are lost, and then index it to inflation.”
With few divisive issues separating the candidates, it may come down to perception and background for many voters.
Katie McGinty has the support of the party “establishment” –receiving the lion’s share of funding and endorsements from influential organizations and individuals, like President Barack Obama.
But it’s retired admiral Joe Sestak, the candidate Madonna describes as an “anti-establishment maverick” who’s been leading in the polls since day 1. Sestak believes this is a strength of his candidacy.
He said, “You can see it across Pennsylvania today. The establishment has let us down. People are absolutely tired of the party bosses, whether its here in Pennsylvania or down in Washington D.C., trying to dictate who their candidate can be.”
Another of Sestak’s strengths is his military experience – he retired as a three-star admiral from the Navy and served as President Bill Clinton’s director for defense policy. Sestak says his experience has prepared him to combat ISIS.
“Treat ISIS like it is – it is not just an international terrorist organization. Oh, it’s that. But it's more. It’s become a state. When you want to go after a state that tries to do us harm, you kick the legs out from under it with our air power. And you go after not the refined oil, but the source of it, the crude oil production facilities,” he said.
His other opponent, John Fetterman, has an unconventional style Madonna says some voters are drawn to.
Madonna said, “Here’s a guy who’s six foot eight, who has tattoos, who until about two or three weeks ago, didn’t own a sport coat. And he’s very casual and he has this unique personality that a lot of people talk about.”
Fetterman has been known to talk about his campaign platforms over a beer at local bars instead of at traditional fundraising events. This informal approach could endear him to younger voters, similar to his presidential pick, Bernie Sanders.
But Madonna says Fetterman is unlikely to emerge as a dark horse candidate. “The problem with him is he just doesn’t have the kind of money or the name recognition that the other two have, or the support among even among rank-and-file Democrats. I’m not suggesting that he can’t come up in the polls, but if you look at the polling that’s been going on, this certainly looks like a two-person race.”
The primary between McGinty, Sestak and Fetterman is April 26th. The eventual Democratic candidate will attempt to unseat Republican Senator Pat Toomey in November and try to help the Democrats regain control of the Senate.