WASHINGTON – The headline sounds bad: Katie McGinty Falsely Claimed To Be First Member Of Her Family To Go To College, BuzzFeed wrote Wednesday night.
The story chips away at the blue-collar story McGinty has been telling as she runs for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, hoping to unseat Republican incumbent Pat Toomey. She has pitched herself as the ninth of 10 kids from a Northeast Philly family, one who understands middle class struggles because she went through them, too. More than once she has described herself as the first in her family to go to college.
But BuzzFeed found that one of McGinty's brothers, John McGinty, actually attended community college and then went on to LaSalle nearly a decade before she entered St. Joseph's University, in 1981. McGinty's campaign explained that what she meant – and has said in many news releases – is that she was the first to attend a four-year college. That's what her official campaign bio says, though not what McGinty said in an interview with the Associated Press and in at least one Facebook post.
It's an embarrassing headline, to be sure, and it gives Republicans a chance to paint McGinty as a liar and "Shady Katie," as the GOP's national Senate campaign arm put it. She'll endure some bruises, though this story in June is unlikely to be fatal in the long run. McGinty, in an interview Thursday, specified that she is proud to be the first in her family to go to a "four-year college" directly from high school, and her campaign released a statement from her brother saying that's how the family always talked about her experience.
Because even if you believe the McGinty camp's implication that she simply misspoke, this was an unforced error – the kind more seasoned politicians avoid. It's also the kind of slip up national Democrats hoped to avoid when they weighed into the Pennsylvania primary to support McGinty over Joe Sestak, who the party feared ran too loose and unprofessional an operation.
But McGinty, after a long career as a Democratic staffer, has only run for public office once before – in the 2014 gubernatorial primary – and has relatively little experience in front of microphones.
This is at least the third time she has been forced to clean up after statements opened the door to attacks on her honesty. Early in the Democratic primary, McGinty said at a debate that Toomey had voted against "every single bill" to help veterans. Toomey had, indeed, voted against numerous spending bills that included money for veterans, but his campaign quickly pointed to other bills that he did back that also aimed to help the troops.
In response to another debate question McGinty said she had not received money from the "oil and gas industry," an assertion that came into question when her rivals pointed to donors from the industry who had, in fact, contributed. McGinty was forced to explain that she hadn't taken money from PACs tied to the oil and gas industries.
These types of stories are a major reason why politics has become sterilized and professionalized, with candidates walled off behind aides, press releases and rote talking points.
Any misstep – especially in a race closely watched by both national parties and with huge implications for control of the Senate -- leads to attacks that can undercut a candidate's message. Just hours before the BuzzFeed story posted McGinty was telling reporters on a conference call how important college affordability is to her fight for the middle class, and attacking Toomey on the issue.
She reiterated that point in a brief interview Thursday about the questions raised by BuzzFeed.