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McGinty tops Sestak for Senate nomination

Katie McGinty won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, beating Joe Sestak with a surge in contributions.

Katie McGinty talks to supporters following her victory in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey is at far left.
Katie McGinty talks to supporters following her victory in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey is at far left.Read moreCurt Hudson

Katie McGinty won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate on Tuesday, beating Joe Sestak with a late surge fueled by millions of dollars and high-profile party support from Washington.

With nearly three-quarters of the vote counted, McGinty held a double-digit lead over Sestak, a margin far larger than many pollsters and insiders predicted. Braddock Mayor John Fetterman had a big showing in his home county, Allegheny, but finished third.

McGinty's win was a victory for the Democratic establishment, whose endorsements and spending elevated a candidate with deep party roots but who had never won an election and had lagged in polls until the primary's final stretch.

The results set up a matchup with the incumbent Republican, Pat Toomey, in a race both parties say could decide control of the Senate.

For Sestak, a retired admiral and former congressman from Delaware County, the night seemed to bring an unorthodox political career to a halt, dashing the hopes of a man who nearly topped Toomey in 2010 but who forever clashed with party leaders.

Top Democrats in Washington and Harrisburg saw McGinty, a Wayne resident and Gov. Wolf's former chief of staff, as the better option.

Party strategists hope her push to become Pennsylvania's first woman senator will dovetail with a presidential nomination for Hillary Clinton.

McGinty, a mother of three who touts her blue-collar Philadelphia roots, argued that she would present the most stark contrast with Toomey.

"It's your turn to elect a champion for the middle class," McGinty said in her victory speech. "I'll stand with your family in every fight, and we'll win."

And with Donald Trump seemingly on his way to securing the GOP presidential nomination, her prepared remarks paired Toomey and Trump seven times - foreshadowing a coming line of attack.

Sestak, speaking to his disappointed backers, said voters "know somehow the system has let them down," but that "the leadership that we need is going to arise to restore that trust."

He walked away to Frank Sinatra's "My Way."

McGinty's campaign underwhelmed at first - one poll had her down 10 points one month ago - but was lifted by $4.5 million in spending from Senate Democrats' political arm and their allies; campaign visits by Vice President Biden; and a string of endorsements from major labor unions, Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D., Pa.), and even President Obama, whose image and voice graced McGinty's television spots.

Her campaign and the outside groups supporting her spent $6.1 million on television ads, compared with $3.7 million for Sestak and his backers, according to a Sestak ally tracking the buys.

McGinty won't have such an advantage against Toomey, who has stockpiled $9.1 million for the fall contest and has far more campaign experience.

But she may have a landscape that favors Democrats.

The party has won Pennsylvania in the past six presidential races, and if Clinton leads the ticket, Democrats expect she will bring out a wave of supporters.

Toomey, meanwhile, may be saddled with an unpopular GOP nominee if one of his party's top candidates - Trump or Ted Cruz - wins the nomination.

Toomey voted for Cruz on Tuesday, supporting the Texas senator, who is beloved on the right but loathed by the GOP's center, including many in Pennsylvania.

"He's a solid conservative," Toomey told the Allentown Morning Call outside his polling place in Zionsville. "We don't agree on everything, but having served with him in the Senate, I know Ted pretty well, and I think he's got a real, real viable shot of beating Hillary Clinton."

Democrats said that showed Toomey is "extreme," and planned attacks painting the former investment banker as an ally of Wall Street, not average voters.

Toomey's campaign immediately lashed out at McGinty, calling her "a far-left machine politician" and "Pennsylvania's number-one abuser of the revolving door between government and corporate boards."

McGinty has long worked behind the scenes, including stints as a top environmental aide in President Bill Clinton's White House and as Gov. Ed Rendell's environmental secretary.

She has grounded her story in her background as the daughter of a Philadelphia police officer and a restaurant hostess.

Sestak, after narrowly losing to Toomey in 2010, worked nearly nonstop for a rematch - including walking 422 miles across the state early last year. But party leaders feared that his unpredictable methods could cost them a key race.

Supporters at his election headquarters in Media grumbled about Obama's role.

"Our own party did this to him," said Connie McGuiness-Myers of Springfield, Delaware County, who has volunteered for Sestak since 2006. She said she would leave the party and become independent.

Others blamed Fetterman for hurting Sestak. "You split the progressive vote," said Chris DiGangi of Gulph Mills.

Fetterman, despite having little funding, far outpaced pollsters' expectations and, in a statement, said his supporters "have started a progressive movement."

"We're not going away. . . . This is not how our story ends," Fetterman said.

The national push for McGinty raised eyebrows in both parties, where some questioned whether she was that much stronger an option.

"Is she really $4.5 million better than Sestak?" asked GOP consultant Christopher Nicholas.

Democrats have placed a big bet that she is.