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Van Hollen and McGinty Prove Democratic Establishment Still Has Muscle

The candidates won because of superior fundraising enabled by the support of party leaders

Democratic Pennsylvania Senate candidate Katie McGinty won thanks to an all-out effort from Democratic Party establishment . (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Democratic Pennsylvania Senate candidate Katie McGinty won thanks to an all-out effort from Democratic Party establishment . (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In the year of the political outsider, consummate insiders have won a pair of high-profile, contentious Democratic primaries for Senate.  

Former Clinton administration official Katie McGinty in Pennsylvania and Rep. Chris Van Hollen in Maryland each won their intra-party races Tuesday, defeating former Rep. Joe Sestak and Rep. Donna Edwards, respectively. For Van Hollen, the win all but guarantees he replace the retiring Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski in the Senate in 2017, given Maryland’s traditional deep shade of blue in presidential years.  

For McGinty, the path to a Senate seat is murkier: She now takes on Republican Sen. Pat Toomey in what will be one of the year’s marquee Senate races, a campaign whose outcome could plausibly determine whether Democrats retake a majority in the upper chamber next year. Pennsylvania, a state President Obama won in both of his presidential elections, has long been considered a top target for Democrats in 2016, but  the first-term Toomey is well-funded and has built a reputation as a pragmatic deal-makers since winning his seat in 2010.  

McGinty won thanks to an all-out effort from Democratic Party establishment – which considers Sestak a general election liability — to carry her across the finish line, including roughly $2 million in ads from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and endorsements from President Obama and Vice President Biden. That heavy-handed support was successful despite a political climate that, at least at the presidential level, has been hostile to candidates closely aligned overtly aligned with party leaders.  

The same was true of the race in Maryland, where Van Hollen triumphed over the outsider Edwards despite years as a House Democratic leader.  

Not every Democratic leader had a good election Tuesday: Chaka Fattah, a longtime congressman from Philadelphia, lost his re-election bid amid federal corruption charges levied against him last year. He was defeated by state Rep. Dwight Evans.  

In Maryland, the fight between Edwards and Van Hollen has been a divisive one, featuring a deep split among voters attracted to the establishment favorite congressman against the outsider congresswoman. Edwards has argued that Van Hollen is too eager to compromise, especially on entitlement programs like Social Security. Van Hollen has rebutted those claims, but it has contributed to the sense that the primary is a showdown between one candidate open to compromise against one who believes the party should do more fighting than bargaining.  

The race also featured an enormous racial divide, in which African-American voters have overwhelmingly backed Edwards while white voters supported Van Hollen. In early exit polls of the race, the House leader reportedly won white voters nearly three-to-one, while Edwards won black voters two-to-one.  

Early in the race, when it became clear that Rep. Elijah Cummings would not run, the Montgomery County lawmaker was expected to claim victory  on the strength of his superior fundraising. But Edwards benefitted from an enormous investment from EMILY’S List, which – with the aid of single donor – has spent $2.9 million on behalf of the congresswoman. The group’s spending has drawn criticism from Van Hollen supporters and some Democrats, who have argued that the cash would be better used against Republicans.  

But Van Hollen’s own financial muscle eventually gave him a significant edge: Reports filed with the Federal Election Commission show that the Washington-area congressman raised $8 million through early April – nearly $5 million more than Edwards.  

He also benefitted from a late ad from a Super PAC backing Edwards, which accused Van Hollen of cutting a deal with the NRA opposed by President Obama. The White House condemned the ad, and Van Hollen’s campaign seized on its disapproval to make the case that Edwards and her campaign can’t be trusted.  

In the races to fill Van Hollen and Edwards’ seats, Democrat Jamie Raskin will face Republican Dan Cox to fill Van Hollen’s 8th District seat. Raskin, the state legislature’s Democratic whip, won 33% of the vote in a nine-candidate field that included millionaire wine merchant David Trone, who spent $9 million of his own money on the campaign and finished five points behind, and Kathleen Matthews, a former D.C. TV anchor and Marriott executive and wife of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, who finished third.  

Former Maryland lieutenant governor and failed 2014 gubernatorial candidate Anthony Brown won 41% of the vote in the Democratic primary in Edwards’ 4th District. He’ll face Republican George McDermott, who won 46% of the vote in the Republican primary.  

Both districts are considered Safe Democrat by the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report /Roll Call.  

McGinty entered the race relatively late, deciding over the summer that she would take on the former congressman. Sestak had declared he would run in 2015, and in the eyes of some, never stopped campaigning after being the party’s nominee in 2010.  

But the former adviser to Al Gore benefitted from the Democratic Party’s establishment deep dislike of Sestak, whom it views as a general election liability because of his idiosyncratic style. She consolidated support early, winning endorsements from former Gov. Ed Rendell and current Gov. Tom Wolf along with a host of labor unions.  

By the race’s final months, however, she still lagged Sestak in most polls. The party establishment then kicked into overdrive on her behalf, winning over endorsements from the President Obama and Vice President Biden while the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee poured in millions of dollars. All told, groups aligned with McGinty spent more than $4 million in the race’s final month to help her topple Sestak.  

Contact Roarty at and follow him on Twitter @Alex_Roarty

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