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Three things to watch as Pa. Senate primary goes to the wire

As Pennsylvania's hotly contested Democratic Senate primary comes down to decision day today, here are three quick thoughts on the state of the race and what lies ahead.

The winner in the four-way race will challenge Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) in the fall in a race that both national parties say could help determine control of the Senate.

Last-minute movement
As recently as last week Democratic operatives in Pennsylvania were still by and large predicting a close win for Joe Sestak over Katie McGinty, who has had all the backing from the party apparatus but has trailed throughout. Braddock Mayor John Fetterman and Western Pennsylvania businessman Joseph Vodvarka were considered spoilers, but too far back in polling and money to win.

But party operatives contacted by The Inquirer over the past several days showed a shifting mood. The latest predictions were about evenly split. Some who once said Sestak would win now changed their tunes. And all agreed that McGinty had surged, with the help of some $4.5 million in spending by her Washington supporters, including the national party.

The change was evident in the posture of the campaigns in recent days. McGinty, after weeks of attacking Sestak, turned her fire instead on Toomey in the Democrats' final debate Friday. Sestak, who as the front-runner had shunned media attention in the race's closing stages, invited some reporters to join him as he toured African-American churches Sunday, trying to rally his supporters and perhaps counter McGinty's ads blaring her endorsement from President Obama.

Sestak allies, acknowledging how the contest had shifted, were already pointing to the spending gap: $6.1 million on the air for McGinty and her backers, against $3.7 million for Sestak and his supporters.

The question is whether McGinty's movement arrived a little too late – or just in time. It could come down to a few percentage points. Few were confident that they could foresee the outcome.

The presidential factor
Just about every pundit and operative in Pennsylvania agrees that the presidential race throws a wrinkle into the primary fight.

What no one could put a finger on is exactly what that will mean.

Both the Sestak and McGinty camps agree on this much: Bernie Sanders voters favor Sestak; Hillary Clinton voters like McGinty more. But they disagree on whose margins are better.

Does Sestak have a huge lead with Sanders voters and trail only slightly among Clinton backers? Or the other way around?

Polls show there will almost certainly be more Clinton voters out today – but how much of a bump that gives McGinty is one of the unanswered questions, even after months of analysis.

Another: how much of a factor are Fetterman and Vodvarka? In a race that could be so close, whom do they take votes from?

Fetterman might grab some of the outsider voters who might otherwise gravitate to Sestak. But his appeal in Western Pennsylvania might cut into McGinty's advantage over Sestak in that region.

What's next?
The bottom line for whoever wins will be the same: they'll be short on cash after an exhausting primary while facing a well-funded incumbent who has already been dropping negative information about his would-be rivals.

Expect more as soon as Wednesday. None of the Democrats are particularly well-known statewide and Toomey will have a chance to define them while they lack the money needed to tell their own stories on TV (much like Obama did to Mitt Romney after the GOP presidential primary in 2012).

But in some other ways the general election gets easier for the Democratic pick. There will be a much more clear contrast with Toomey, and either Sestak or McGinty will be able to link themselves to Obama and their party's presidential nominee while trying to lump Toomey in with Donald Trump or Ted Cruz – who are both broadly unpopular in Pennsylvania – if either wins the GOP nomination. (Toomey voted for Cruz Tuesday).

Toomey has already tried to turn the race from national to local issues, focusing on topics like opioid abuse and violence against police.

Expect a tug of war not just on policy, but on how the general election is framed.

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