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How the Presidential Primary Could Change Two Marquee Senate Races

The Democratic fight will drive up turnout in down-ballot primaries in Maryland and Pennsylvania

Sanders and Clinton at a debate earlier this month. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Sanders and Clinton at a debate earlier this month. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The Democratic presidential primary that was expected to be over in winter has instead spilled into spring — with few signs of an imminent end. Next month, that could have a big impact on two of the party’s most important Senate primary contests.  

The showdown between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont will reach Maryland and Pennsylvania on April 26. The two states also feature multi-candidate brawls in their Democratic Senate primaries. In Maryland, Reps. Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen are the top contenders and in Pennsylvania the race is effectively a two-candidate fight between former Democratic Rep. Joe Sestak and onetime Al Gore adviser Katie McGinty.  

The presence of the presidential campaign will force those down-ballot campaigns — already locked in tight races with plenty of scrutiny from party insiders — to recalibrate their strategies, mindful that they’re no longer the biggest game in town. Among the new pressures: Finding ways to earn media attention, identifying potential new supporters and purchasing air time on local TV.  

“Everyone has to readjust their turnout models because no one expected Maryland’s presidential primary to matter,” said Steve Kearney, a former top adviser to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.  

The likelihood that the presidential primary will reach these two states increased over the weekend, when Sanders easily won a trio of contests that his campaign claimed gave his candidacy momentum . He faces his next major test against Clinton on April 5 in Wisconsin.  

In Pennsylvania and Maryland, it’s a given that the allure of a high-profile battle will turn more people out to vote. In Pennsylvania, Democrats expect turnout to surge past the 845,000 people who voted in the party’s 2014 gubernatorial primary — a race McGinty lost.

Unanticipated front-runners

Edwards and Sestak — neither of whom is the pick of the party establishment — are each considered a slight front-runner in their states. In the eyes of their supporters, the two political outsiders will benefit from the Sanders campaign’s continued relevancy because his supporters will be inclined to back candidates fighting the establishment.  

But the calculation isn’t so simple. In Pennsylvania, McGinty has endorsed Clinton and, like the former secretary of state, is trying to break a gender barrier of her own: The Keystone State has never elected a woman to serve in the Senate (or governorship for that matter). Officials in her campaign are confident that the alignment with Clinton will boost McGinty, especially given that early polls show Clinton sporting a big advantage in the state.  

“People who give a s— about a woman being president also give a s— about a woman being a senator,” said a McGinty official, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about campaign strategy.  

Sestak, meanwhile, hasn’t endorsed anyone in the presidential race. But a third candidate, the mayor of a small town near Pittsburgh named John Fetterman, has endorsed Sanders, meaning that the senator from Vermont’s supporters could rally his campaign.  

The presidential campaigns will work overtime to turn out their supporters, to the help — and possible detriment — of the Senate campaigns.  

“Edwards wants to boost African-American turnout, and the Clinton people are going to be working really hard to do that. So that’s good for her,” said one Maryland Democratic operative, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “But the Clinton people are trying to get seniors to turn out, and I can’t imagine that wouldn’t hurt Van Hollen.”



Nobody can say for sure how large the voter surge will be. An official with the McGinty campaign predicted roughly 1.1 million people will show up, just a nudge above the 1.05 million who voted in the state’s competitive 2010 Democratic Senate primary (when Sestak defeated incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter). Other Democratic officials predicted turnout would be halfway between the 2014 gubernatorial primary and the 2008 presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, when an astounding 2.3 million voted.  

In that scenario, about 1.6 million people would turn out to vote in the Keystone State — many of them men and women who don’t normally participate in relatively low-turnout primaries. That creates a challenge for campaigns, which must try to identify these new voters and then figure out how to turn them into supporters.  

“When you have these elections where voter turnout spikes … it requires you to go outside the traditional approaches to identifying and targeting voters because you’re getting people who don’t vote regularly,” said Mark Nevins, a Philadelphia-based Democratic strategist.  

Normally, campaigns target only regular voters, like those who have voted in three of the last four statewide primaries. But McGinty and Sestak officials will need to broaden their approach, Nevins said, possibly targeting voters who cast ballots in 2008 but have been missing in the primaries since.



That requires a deftness of politicking that, in Maryland, officials with Van Hollen’s campaigns are confident they possess. Last week, the campaign issued a memo touting its ground game, which officials say includes knocking on the doors of more than 140,000 voters and making more than 450,000 calls since August. It’s an effort the Van Hollen campaign, which is better funded than Edwards, vows to ramp up in the coming weeks.  

“Our ability to contact and persuade voters has been strategically built to grow exponentially in this phase of the campaign, with the goal of peaking during (early voting) and on April 26th so we can get every Van Hollen supporter to the polls,” the memo said.  

Targeting young voters, who are some of Sanders’s most fervent supporters, might be the toughest challenge. Under normal circumstances, reaching them requires a mixture of new-media approaches — like digital advertising — that doesn’t rely on traditional means of putting campaign ads on local TV.  

But a presidential campaign can make the challenge extra difficult. The better-funded presidential campaigns could buy up TV and digital ad space while siphoning media attention. A Sanders rally at the University of Maryland, for instance, would likely receive more coverage than any event staged by Van Hollen or Edwards.  

“If both of those campaigns were running ads, that’s sucking up the oxygen in the room,” Nevins said. “That’s less attention that’s going to be paid to the Senate race.”  

The Maryland Senate battle is already jostling for attention with another high-profile race: the competitive Democratic primary in the Baltimore mayoral race.  

The amount of money it takes to purchase airtime could also soar in both races’ final weeks, and not just because of the Democratic presidential primary.  

The GOP presidential primary also shows no signs of slowing, and the Republicans hold their races in Pennsylvania and Maryland concurrent with the Democrats.  

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