Separated by just 25 miles, Cathy Sikorski and Regina Dowling are the kind of voter who could decide Pennsylvania's contentious U.S. Senate election - and perhaps control of the entire chamber.

Each is a college-educated woman in the Philadelphia suburbs - a coveted demographic in populous counties that often swing statewide races. Each is a mother worried about the future for young people.

Each views the critical race between Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) and Democrat Katie McGinty through a different lens.

Sikorski, a Democrat, likes Toomey well enough, but wants a Senate that will work with Hillary Clinton - or provide a check on Donald Trump. "The picture is bigger than just Pat Toomey, unfortunately for him," she says.

Dowling, a Republican, is unsure about Trump, but sold on Toomey and his fiscal bona fides. "I agree with him on the budget and the government and what the government should do," she says. "The role of the government is for our safety and our security and not all the other things that we're into."

In the nation's most expensive Senate contest, the two perspectives reflect competing bids to frame the race: McGinty pinning her rival to Trump and national politics, Toomey saying it's a local choice between his independence and a Democratic "rubber stamp."

Sikorski and Dowling are just two of millions of Pennsylvanians expected to cast ballots on Nov. 8. But interviews with each offer a window into what resonates after months of campaigning and more than $100 million in political spending.

A second and final debate looms Monday night. Polls suggest a tight race right to the end.

Sending a message

Sikorksi, 59, is exactly the kind of voter Toomey needs to win.

The Montgomery County lawyer and writer favors Democrats but never votes a straight ticket, and won't this time. She says Toomey has done some good. "I'm not as irrationally opposed to Pat Toomey as some people may be," she says.

But Sikorski has broader concerns: After seeing eight years of Republican resistance to President Obama, she hopes a Clinton White House will have a cooperative Congress - and a chance to get things done.

That means dumping Republicans, and Toomey.

"There's no way I would put them back in charge of the Senate," she says. "I'm kind of tired of a Congress that isn't doing anything."

Her view cuts to questions at the heart of the race: In a blue-leaning state, can Toomey convince enough Democrats and moderates that he deserves a second term, without alienating his conservative base? Has he distinguished himself from his party's rougher edges, including Trump?

Sikorski and Dowling both framed their decisions on the incumbent and his party.

Toomey, 54, has charted a delicate path.

Meticulous and analytical, with a dry sense of humor, he's not nearly as easily demonized as, say, former Sen. Rick Santorum, drubbed out of office when voters tired of his polarizing style.

A resident of Zionsville, outside of Allentown, he has worked to round out his image - crossing the aisle on some issues while holding firm to conservative fiscal principles. But he has also been saddled with a bomb-throwing presidential nominee.

McGinty has pounced.

After years in and around high-level politics, but never holding elected office, the Democrat from Wayne has ridden favorable political winds, backing from party heavyweights, and a working-class background to move within striking distance of a Senate seat.

Sikorski has tracked the battle closely.

To the Pottstown resident, the debate on health care hits close to home: She has been the primary caregiver for seven aging or seriously ill relatives or friends over the years, and her legal career centers on the elderly.

She hails the Affordable Care Act - it allowed her daughters to stay on her health plan when they left college - but wants Congress to fix its flaws. And after paying "ridiculously high" college bills for her children, she worries about costs for future students, an issue McGinty has pledged to tackle.

To Sikorski, Republicans have just stood in the way.

"If you people can't do it as bipartisans, then you're going to have to learn the hard way," Sikorski says. She laughs. "I sound like I'm talking to my kids, don't I?"

Independence or cowardice?

Toomey says he offers something better.

At a campaign stop in Villanova this month, he enlisted Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine moderate who singled out an indelible moment in his tenure: After the 2013 Sandy Hook school shooting, Toomey defied GOP orthodoxy to cosponsor a bill expanding background checks for gun buyers.

Hours after that event, Toomey told the Inquirer: "In order to make progress in Washington you need people who are willing to say, 'You know what? My party's not always right,' and I'm going to do what is right."

It's a far more conciliatory message than in 2010, when he harnessed a tea party wave to push Sen. Arlen Specter out of the Republican Party.

This year has brought a more challenging atmosphere. Toomey has tried to distance himself from Trump without offending Trump voters - refusing to support the GOP nominee, or to rule it out. He casts that stand as more evidence he's not bound by party.

McGinty calls it hedging and cowardly. And she paints his moderate image as a facade, saying his loyalty is to Wall Street, where he began his career.

With populism ascendant, McGinty, 53, touts her roots in a blue-collar family in Northeast Philadelphia.

She rose from that beginning to key environmental jobs in the Clinton White House and Pennsylvania's Rendell administration. Most recently she was chief of staff to Gov. Wolf.

(Toomey points to her high-paying green energy jobs in between, including with businesses that received lucrative state grants from her agency.)

Upbeat and folksy, McGinty weaves her story into a familiar Democratic platform, supporting a higher minimum wage, federal family leave, and two years of free community college. All, she says, would help families like the one she grew up in.

"I come from a hardworking family, where I'll tell ya, my mom and my dad, both working every day, told all 10 of us kids that we could chase and realize our dreams," McGinty said at a recent debate.

Toomey - who was raised in a working-class home in Rhode Island but rarely talks in personal terms - says her plans would jack up taxes. Whose argument wins out will depend heavily on voters like Dowling and Sikorski.

"The largest pool of college-educated women live in the suburbs of Philadelphia," said G. Terry Madonna, a Franklin and Marshall pollster. In the 2012 Senate race, he noted, the four counties accounted for more than one out of every five votes.

Worry for the future

If McGinty and Dowling met, they might trade stories.

Dowling, 73, rose from a modest childhood in Upper Darby to a comfortable retirement in West Chester, where she raised four children. "I thank God every day for the life that I have," she says.

Her father drove a truck for the township while her mother started out sewing military uniforms at the Supply and Defense Agency in Philadelphia.

Like McGinty, Dowling was one of the first in her family to attend college, graduating from Immaculata and landing work as a teacher.

It was easy then to find jobs, she says. She and her husband married young, bought a $16,000 home at 24 and never looked back.

She worries that her nine grandchildren won't have the same chances.

Two of her grandchildren are in college, and with two more soon to follow, she says her children can't afford to pay more taxes while saving for fast-rising tuition.

"My grandsons are going to be hocked up to the teeth for the rest of their time after they graduate, and then they have to find a job," Dowling says.

She says "Obamacare" is too burdensome and scoffs when people use the term "slashing" taxes to make it scary - "like a horror movie."

That's why she likes Toomey: a firm fiscal conservative. Uneasy about Trump, Dowling is comfortable with the senator.

"I've kind of separated the two of them," she says. "You don't have to go along with the president, even if he is in your party."

Both voters acknowledge they don't know a lot about McGinty.

But, says Dowling, "I know what I'm getting with Toomey." So, too, does Sikorski, which is why McGinty gets her vote. "I don't really know what I'm going to get, until I get it," she says, "but it's a risk that I have to take."


Staff writer Justine McDaniel contributed to this article.