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Will Mushy Moderates Cost the Democrats a Senate Majority?

If handpicked candidates like Katie McGinty blow this chance to take back the Senate, the party will have only itself to blame.

Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Shortly after 6 p.m. on the third and final night of the Democratic National Convention, Katie McGinty strode on stage at the Wells Fargo Center, clasping her hands in an odd victory salute and waving gleefully at the crowd. It wasn’t primetime, but it was the national debut for the former Clinton environmental adviser the Democratic Party had handpicked to challenge Pennsylvania’s Republican incumbent senator, Pat Toomey. “Thank you for joining us in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly—AND sisterly—love,” McGinty said, beaming down at the delegates milling around the convention floor. “You’ve seen that Pennsylvania is great—it is great, for the same reasons America is great: hard work, timeless values, and the belief that we all must look out for each other.”

Delivered in a stilted, singsongy voice, McGinty’s string of platitudes earned a smattering of tepid applause from the crowd and a series of blistering reviews online. “McGinty sounds like she’s speaking to a kindergarten class, not a convention hall,” tweeted the National Journal’s Josh Kraushaar. Minutes later, the Guardian’s Dan Roberts added: “Katie McGinty, running for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, just gave the Saturday Night Live spoof version of a plastic political stump speech.”

That’s pretty much been the story of McGinty’s campaign—one that’s borne great resemblance to the equally lackluster efforts by the party’s chosen candidates in Florida (Rep. Patrick Murphy) and Nevada (former state Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto). The Democrats are close to blowing the best chance they may have in years to take back the Senate: Control of the chamber has boiled down to six races where the Democratic nominees are all virtually deadlocked with their opponents. (McGinty, down by 2 percent to Toomey, according to Real Clear Politics, is lagging about five points behind Hillary Clinton in the Pennsylvania polls.) If they fall short, it will be because the party went out of its way to recruit and push loyal foot soldiers like McGinty, a career bureaucrat who, despite having a compelling personal narrative, has shown very little spark on the campaign trail—and offered only one consistent message: Isn’t Donald Trump awful?

In March, just weeks before Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary, McGinty was lagging behind Joe Sestak, a decorated Navy veteran and former congressman from the suburbs of Pennsylvania. Sestak had lost narrowly to Toomey in the Republican landslide of 2010, but in the process, he’d earned a reputation with the national party for being “difficult.” John Fetterman was also gaining steam in the polls; the populist mayor of Braddock, a former steel production hub in southwestern Pennsylvania, he was a fresh voice representing the Bernie Sanders lane in the party.

McGinty had little natural constituency, and less experience running for office—much less winning—than either Fetterman or Sestak. Two years earlier, she’d finished a distant fourth in a four-person Democratic primary for governor. She did, however, have qualities Democrats value in their recruits: thoroughly inoffensive centrist politics, fundraising prowess, endorsements from Washington insiders, and a willingness to stick to Democratic talking points. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and EMILY’s List wooed her into the race. And when her defeat looked likely, the DSCC officially endorsed her in March—and then made sure that she won the nomination. In early April, the DSCC began pouring money into McGinty’s primary, expanding its initial investment well beyond the $1.1 million cash infusion they had originally allocated to shore up her campaign. The whopping $4 million spent by the party, EMILY’s List, and labor unions was enough to put McGinty over the top. (A headline in The Hill captured the reaction back home: “Pennsylvania Democrats Want to Know: Why McGinty?”)

The party also recruited Cortez Masto to defend Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada, and Murphy to challenge Marco Rubio in Florida. The Democrats would have had another flavorless centrist challenging Republican Richard Burr in North Carolina, too, if they hadn’t been turned down by a string of them. The DSCC sat down with former Senator Kay Hagan in early 2015, just months after her bitter loss in 2014, to gauge her interest in running again. Only after she and several other establishment options refused did Democrats settle on an unconventional choice—liberal former state ACLU chief named Deborah Ross. Ross was considered a sure loss, but she’s running close to Burr with one of the most pleasantly surprising campaigns of the cycle—offering a vision as fresh as the party’s chosen candidates’ are stale.

This is typical of the Democratic Party. A sprawling coalition of diverse interest groups, from women in urban centers to Latinos in Colorado and Nevada to African Americans in the South, it tends to put its thumb on the scales in favor of down-ballot candidates who can stick to an unobjectionable, nationalized Democratic message. “They want to keep a homogenized campaign, everybody on the same page, everybody united,” said G. Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster.

In practice, that means the Democrats often nominate candidates who stick religiously to safe, tested talking points. McGinty, for example—the ninth of ten children in a family from northeast Philadelphia—habitually circles back to her “working class roots,” invoking a gauzy “American Dream that says put in your 40 hours, and you will be able to provide for yourself and your kids.” She talks about issues like financial regulation, but only in pre-packaged politispeak. “We should not defund the financial watchdog,” she said of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in September. “We should dethrone Pat Toomey.” On stickier liberal issues, McGinty has waffled. When Toomey forced her to take a stance on whether to strip “sanctuary cities” of millions in federal funding this July, she wrote a letter to Jim Kenney, the mayor of Philadelphia, a sanctuary city, asking him to reconsider the policy.

The central distinction McGinty has drawn between herself and her opponent is simple: He belongs to the same party as Donald Trump. “Donald Trump and Pat Toomey have plenty in common,” the narrator in a recent ad from the McGinty campaign says. “Even after Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women, Toomey stood by him.” Her allies have done the same. The Senate Leadership PAC recently released an ad that begins: “TOOMEY & TRUMP. Wrong for the women of Pennsylvania.”

It’s her one issue, really—and Toomey, the only senator running for reelection who hasn’t committed to supporting Trump, has made it devilishly hard for the attacks to stick. Pressed again in Monday night’s debate, he dodged again: “I don’t think my constituents care that much how one person is going to vote.” Toomey’s tactic has worked: Even as the Trump campaign was engulfed by sleaze in the weeks after his 2005 Access Hollywood tape surfaced, Toomey rose slightly in some polls, edging marginally ahead of McGinty.

Cortez Masto and Murphy have used the same playbook, repeatedly attempting to bludgeon their opponents with Trump. In an October 14 debate against Representative Joe Heck, Cortez Masto said, “When Donald Trump was making fun of the disabled, attacking Mexicans, calling them rapists and criminals, and calling women names and denigrating women—which we know why he was, because he thinks he can sexually assault women—Congressman Heck had high hopes Donald Trump would be president.” It didn’t quite work: In the days before that debate, Heck had disavowed the nominee altogether, helping to neutralize Cortez Masto’s prepared zingers. She had little other material to work with.

In an October 17 debate against Marco Rubio, Murphy experienced the same problem, almost comically. When Rubio attacked him for “inappropriate behavior” captured in an old photo that appears to show him groping a woman, Murphy sheepishly tried to pivot: “Let’s just talk about Donald Trump again.” It looked defensive, and furthermore, it’s hard to convince voters that a senator who famously feuded with Donald Trump in the Republican primary—saying “Donald is not going to make America great, he’s going to make America orange”—really stands with the Republican nominee.

After watching the recent Senate debates, Slate’s Jim Newell nailed the problem, writing that Democrats are “trapped in these races,” “adhering to the same, safe strategy of saying Trump’s name a million times, which keeps them close to their rivals but suffocates the strategies elsewhere that might reveal them as inspiring candidates in their own right, running their own races.”

Imagine, for a moment, that these candidates do pull out victories on November 8. What happens six years from now? In recent midterm elections, moderate Democrats have struggled to hang onto their seats; it’s the reason the Blue Dog caucus in Congress is down to 14 members. Kay Hagan, for example, ran a cookie-cutter Democratic campaign to take her Senate seat in 2008, hewing to the middle and touting her credentials as a corporate lawyer and bank vice president. Six years later, in a midterm election, she was defeated by almost 50,000 votes despite running what Democrats considered a “perfect”—that is, cautious and unimaginative—campaign. With no distinct political personality to attract North Carolinians to her, Hagen was easily cast by Republicans as an Obama puppet. And her centrist appeal was not enough to generate the kind of enthusiasm required to turn voters out in a midterm election year. As one Democratic strategist said at the time, “I don’t think a field operation can create enthusiasm.”

Even if Senator Katie McGinty has the best field operation in the country six years from now, she will need something more than pat Democratic talking points to turn out the vote. And if the Democrats keep handpicking candidates who have to rely on a rogue Republican presidential contender to manufacture enthusiasm, they will almost surely forfeit any chance at holding on to the Senate over the long haul.