WASHINGTON – Democrats are sharpening their knives – and their contrasts – as the Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race enters its final three weeks.
Katie McGinty allies attacked front-runner Joe Sestak on Saturday and Monday, accusing him of favoring cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The criticism – the first time McGinty has trained her fire on a Democratic rival in the race – mirror her comments to the Inquirer at a recent editorial board meeting.
“I would not start by trying to balance a budget on the back of senior citizens – don’t agree with that, don’t think that’s the right way to go,” she said when asked to distinguish herself from Sestak.
The criticism points to Sestak’s comments in support for the Simpson-Bowles budget plan, a sweeping 2010 proposal aimed at cutting the federal deficit with a mix of tax hikes and spending cuts. The compromise blueprint ultimately went nowhere.
Sestak broadly praises the plan on his campaign web site as “a thoughtful template.” But his campaign also pointed to several recent interviews in which he said he supported the outline of the plan, but did not agree with its proposed changes to Social Security and Medicare.
On Social Security, "they didn't get it right," he said in a March radio interview, adding that benefits should remain the same. "And Medicare, we want to keep secure."
In a news release, Sestak said he voted 41 times as a Congressman to protect the two programs. "I trust Pennsylvanians, who are smart enough to recognize the truth."
Republicans, meanwhile, pointed out that McGinty's campaign chairman, former Gov. Ed Rendell, has praised the courage of lawmakers who embraced Simpson-Bowles.
When Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) offered his support, for example, Rendell co-wrote a USA Today column saying, "our political discourse needs more of these truth-tellers, especially as others are so willing to demagogue the issue."
The attacks come as part of what appears to be a two-pronged approach: McGinty’s allies, including national Democrats, are planning to help pay for positive ads spreading her message while others are now assailing Sestak’s record.
Until recently, the three Democrats in the race have largely refrained from attacking one another and staked out similar positions on most high-profile issues. The approach of the April 26 primary seems to have brought a new tone.
A third candidate in the contest, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, also weighed in Monday. Despite placing third in polling, he laid out his path to victory in a memo to reporters, promised a “substantial” TV buy this week and said McGinty “has a bland message and is simply not catching on," -- continuing his aggressive posture toward his rivals.
Sestak, McGinty and Fetterman are vying for the nomination to challenge Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) this fall in a race critical to Democrats’ hopes of taking control of the Senate.
EMILY’s List, a Democratic women’s group backing McGinty, said Saturday that Sestak “joined the Tea Party to support a budget plan that would put Medicare and Social Security at risk.” The group is planning a $1 million television ad buy starting Tuesday. Its first spot picks up where McGinty's own ads left off, hailing her blue collar upbringing, and saying she will "always stand up for manufacturing, higher wages and equal pay for women."
Among the items in Simpson-Bowles were calls to raise the retirement age to 68 in 2050 and 69 in 2075, and reduce the inflationary adjustments for benefits. The plan was seen as an opportunity for bipartisan compromise, though neither party embraced it.
A senior citizens group, Senior Votes Count!, blasted Sestak Monday on a conference call organized by McGinty’s campaign.
Asked last week what separates himself from his Democratic rivals, Sestak demurred, saying he is focused on beating Toomey.
But he has criticized national Democrats' move to spend money supporting McGinty in the primary, saying it will leave the party with less to use against Toomey. National party campaign arms are limited in how much they can spend in coordination with Senate candidates, so amounts used now will not be available for the general election.
“How damaging — and it's not just because it is for a candidate that is 17% behind in the polls and unable to now raise money on her own,” Sestak wrote in an email to supporters “It's because of what DC actions speak to: a party structure that will absolutely not abide any independence of thought.”
Fetterman, trailing in the money race, released a memo saying he is "on pace" to spend more than $1 million and touting his growing social media appeal, saying it far outstrips that of Sestak and McGinty.
He promised that his first major TV buy, in the state’s three largest media markets, "will stand out from every other bland, cookie-cutter campaign commercial.”