The Democratic Comeback Kid In Pennsylvania

Former Rendell adviser Katie McGinty got crushed in this year’s governor’s race, but she’s still got a promising political future.

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 22: Katie McGinty attends the 33rd Annual Women's Campaign Fund Parties of Your Choice Gala at Christie's Auction House on April 22, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Thos Robinson/Getty Images for Women's Campaign Fund)
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Emily Schultheis
Aug. 15, 2014, 12:56 a.m.

Katie Mc­Ginty, an en­vir­on­ment­al ad­viser to both Bill Clin­ton and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell with large polit­ic­al am­bi­tions, saw her polit­ic­al dreams dashed when she fin­ished last in the Demo­crat­ic gov­ernor’s primary this spring. But in­stead of the set­back ham­per­ing her polit­ic­al ca­reer, she’s back on the fast track in Key­stone State polit­ics.

Earli­er this spring, Mc­Ginty was one of three Demo­crats run­ning against busi­ness­man Tom Wolf for the chance to take on un­pop­u­lar GOP Gov. Tom Corbett; now, as the head of Wolf’s polit­ic­al ac­tion com­mit­tee, she’s his top cam­paign sur­rog­ate, criss-cross­ing the state to blast Corbett and boost her former primary rival.

In a year filled with plenty of nasty and con­ten­tious in­tra­party con­tests, Mc­Ginty and Wolf are a rare case of co­oper­a­tion—and act­ive par­ti­cip­a­tion—among one­time 2014 op­pon­ents. And she’s well po­si­tioned to par­lay that team­work in­to a bid for statewide of­fice or Con­gress in 2016, where her chances of suc­cess will be stronger.

Wolf tapped Mc­Ginty, who came in last in the four-way primary, to run the Cam­paign for a Fresh Start, the PAC af­fil­i­ated with his gubernat­ori­al bid. The group will op­er­ate along­side the of­fi­cial cam­paign and par­al­lel to the state party, help­ing with com­mu­nic­a­tions and re­search as well as run­ning the co­ordin­ated cam­paign for oth­er state le­gis­lat­ive of­fices on the bal­lot in Novem­ber. As the group’s chair­wo­man, Mc­Ginty has be­come the pub­lic face of the op­pos­i­tion to Corbett’s reelec­tion.

“We’ve been friends and col­leagues for some time now,” Mc­Ginty told Na­tion­al Journ­al of Wolf. “And so Tom reached out al­most im­me­di­ately after the primary and we sat down to talk about how I could be most help­ful to him.”

Pennsylvania’s gubernat­ori­al primary was ar­gu­ably the most costly and crowded Demo­crat­ic primary on the map this year: at one point, eight can­did­ates were vy­ing for the chance to take on the vul­ner­able in­cum­bent Corbett. That field nar­rowed to four by the fi­nal stretch be­fore the May 20 vote: Wolf, Mc­Ginty, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, and state Treas­urer Rob Mc­Cord.

When Wolf surged ahead in the polls this spring, both Schwartz and Mc­Cord went on the at­tack. Schwartz ques­tioned Wolf’s trans­par­ency as a can­did­ate and his ten­ure at the Wolf Or­gan­iz­a­tion, his fam­ily’s cab­in­et-mak­ing busi­ness; Mc­Cord went so far as to ac­cuse Wolf of sup­port­ing a ra­cist former may­or of York, Pa., an ad that drew re­bukes from Demo­crats across the state as overly harsh.

Mc­Ginty was the only can­did­ate who didn’t go neg­at­ive against Wolf, a de­cision she ex­plained by blast­ing the over­all neg­at­iv­ity of Pennsylvania polit­ics these days.

“Look, every­body chooses their tac­tics and strategies,” she said. “For me, Tom Corbett has in­flic­ted so much neg­at­iv­ity on the state that there wasn’t much room for more.”

Wolf ul­ti­mately won with 58 per­cent of the vote, more than 40 points ahead of any of his op­pon­ents. Schwartz fol­lowed with 18 per­cent, then Mc­Cord with 17 per­cent and Mc­Ginty com­ing in fourth with 8 per­cent.

Of all of Wolf’s former primary op­pon­ents, state ob­serv­ers say Mc­Ginty is a nat­ur­al fit not just be­cause she nev­er went neg­at­ive—but be­cause she and Wolf also have worked to­geth­er in the past and knew each oth­er per­son­ally.

In­deed, Mc­Ginty and Wolf’s time serving in Rendell’s cab­in­et—Mc­Ginty as en­vir­on­ment­al pro­tec­tion dir­ect­or, Wolf as rev­en­ue sec­ret­ary—over­lapped, and the two have a long his­tory to­geth­er. That fact con­trib­uted to their con­geni­al re­la­tion­ship dur­ing the primary and Wolf’s de­cision to tap Mc­Ginty to aid his cam­paign.

“Not only are their per­son­al­it­ies and skills com­ple­ment­ary—they’re ac­tu­ally friends,” said Dan Fee, a vet­er­an of former Gov. Ed Rendell’s 2002 and 2006 cam­paigns.

Wolf had ini­tially named Mc­Ginty as his pick to chair the state party, a po­s­i­tion each gubernat­ori­al nom­in­ee gen­er­ally gets to fill. But the cur­rent chair­man, Jim Burn, an­nounced he would run again in­stead of back­ing down—and in an ef­fort to avoid an in­tra­party lead­er­ship fight, Wolf op­ted in­stead to cre­ate Fresh Start, run­ning many key 2014 op­er­a­tions through there in­stead of the state party.

Mc­Ginty has be­gun trav­el­ing the state for Fresh Start, hold­ing press con­fer­ences and events with loc­al can­did­ates to blast Corbett over is­sues like cuts to edu­ca­tion fund­ing. In her role at Fresh Start, Mc­Ginty over­sees a staff that in­cludes sev­er­al former col­leagues from her cam­paign: Her cam­paign man­ager Mike Mikus, for ex­ample, serves as a seni­or strategist. Oth­er staffers come from around the state, in­clud­ing Elena Cross, who most re­cently served as ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or for the state Demo­crat­ic Party.

While a can­did­ate PAC headed by a former rival is un­pre­ced­en­ted in the Key­stone State, one-time primary op­pon­ents help­ing each oth­er out in vari­ous ways isn’t. Back in 2002, Ed Rendell and Bob Ca­sey faced off for the Demo­crat­ic gubernat­ori­al nom­in­a­tion; after a long and ex­pens­ive two-man race, Rendell ul­ti­mately won the primary and went on to win two terms as gov­ernor. Ca­sey en­dorsed Rendell and helped him out dur­ing the gen­er­al elec­tion—a fa­vor Rendell re­turned when he en­dorsed Ca­sey’s 2006 Sen­ate bid against Re­pub­lic­an in­cum­bent Rick San­tor­um.

“There is that pre­ced­ent—primary op­pon­ents have come to­geth­er, and not just in name,” said Charlie Ly­ons, a long­time Ca­sey aide.

Vet­er­an op­er­at­ives in the state say Mc­Ginty’s primary run, though un­suc­cess­ful, widely im­pressed Pennsylvania Demo­crats—mean­ing she’s both an as­set to Wolf now and a fu­ture can­did­ate, if she’s in­ter­ested in run­ning. Pennsylvania strategists say it’s likely she’ll be back on the bal­lot in 2016, wheth­er it’s for a statewide po­s­i­tion or to run in Pennsylvania’s 6th Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, if Re­pub­lic­an Ry­an Cos­tello wins this fall.

“The con­ven­tion­al wis­dom is that she was an ef­fect­ive can­did­ate” who nev­er got trac­tion be­cause it was such a crowded field, said Ly­ons. “Not only did Katie stay above the fray and stay pos­it­ive, she also got pretty good re­views from the me­dia and Demo­crat­ic lead­ers for talk­ing about is­sues, hav­ing a high level of en­ergy, rais­ing money—all the tools that you’d want to have for the role she’s in [now].”

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