Speaking in one of the slots before about, say, 9 p.m. at the Democratic National Convention isn’t easy. Delegates are often still mulling around, people are finding their seats or grabbing dinner, and side conversations are happening across the arena.
But Pennsylvania Senate candidate Katie McGinty’s DNC speech problems went beyond that. Her address to the tens of thousands of people about lifting up the middle class failed to resonate. She wasn’t able to muster crowd reaction at all. The arena spoke over top of her and drowned out even some her money lines that excoriated Donald Trump.
It’s not what the Philadelphia native needed this week.
McGinty, who has never held elected office and most recently served a (short) stint as Gov. Tom Wolf’s chief of staff, clawed her way through a tough primary against former Congressman Joe Sestak. McGinty had the support of the establishment — largely because they weren’t fans of Sestak — and now she’s looking to unseat incumbent Republican Pat Toomey. He’s a formidable opponent with a war chest decidedly larger than hers. And this race here in Pennsylvania is one of the most important in the country in what could swing the Senate the way of the Democrats.
A poll released Thursday out of Suffolk University showed McGinty leading Toomey by some seven points. However, up until now, most polls showed Toomey had a slight edge of a few points over McGinty, with at least 20 percent of likely Pennsylvania voters still undecided on which way they’ll vote.
Toomey’s campaign already pounded McGinty with negative advertising while she’s still very much in her introductory phase. Christopher Borick, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion, said that’s not easy to come back from.
“It’s harder to redefine than to define,” he said. “So if Toomey has been able to help define her in a negative way for voters that are tuning into the race, it adds extra work for her and a more difficult path to try to fight some of the images that he might be building.”
Two pieces of news surrounding McGinty have made national headlines — neither of which could exactly be considered positive, introductory pieces. The first came in June when BuzzFeed reported that McGinty had falsely claimed that she was the first in her family to go to college. In reality, her brother John graduated from La Salle in 1973.
The other moment that made serious headlines was this week, when McGinty finally showed a moment of realness she’s struggled to portray all election season. But something didn’t come out right. She addressed a demonstration put on by members of the Communications Workers of America union and led with “Pat Toomey, he’s an asshole, damnit.” McGinty apologized almost immediately, and said during a media availability Thursday that “people do get tired of the scripted talking points and stuff that just sounds so canned.”
Unfortunately for McGinty, sounding like she’s reciting scripted talking points has so far been more her problem than Toomey’s. Borick said McGinty would do well to push harder on the fact that, if elected, she’d be the first woman to ever win statewide elected office in Pennsylvania.
We’ve never had a woman as governor. We’ve never had a woman as senator. Every current member of our 18-person congressional delegation is a man. In the year of Hillary Clinton, McGinty hasn’t played up her strengths with women as much as she could.
“That’s a no-brainer to try and build together with Hillary’s nomination,” Borick said. “Call it playing the gender card or the woman card. Call it what you want. It’s an opportunity for a candidate. And they have to take opportunities to continually reinforce the fact that they’re in a state where the majority of voters are women and we’ve never elected a woman to our highest offices.”
But this week, McGinty didn’t play that up. In a speech to the Pennsylvania delegation Thursday morning, she stuck to her usual talking points of lifting up the middle class, creating good-paying jobs and hitting Toomey on his connections to Wall Street.
Her speech to the DNC was scheduled for the final night, which is considered to be a prime slot. She hit on Donald Trump more than she has in the past, saying: “That’s the tack of Donald Trump and my opponent Pat Toomey. Just blame the Mexicans. Blame the Muslims. Blame the government. Build a wall. For goodness sakes, the Donald even blamed the pope. My dear mother, God rest her soul, would be turning over in her grave.”
Still, it didn’t resonate. Even that most powerful line.
Borick said the key for McGinty now is hitting the fundraising hard this summer to build up a balance sheet that rivals Toomey’s so she can spend more and create positive associations with her campaign across the state.
And maybe also finding a balance between “canned” and calling her opponent an asshole.