Baer: A Senate race waiting to happen

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Katie McGinty (from left), Joe Sestak and John Fetterman will face off in the Democratic primary for the right to challenge Republican Sen. Pat Toomey this fall.

LET'S AGREE 2016 is a year in which the answer to almost anything political is some variation of who the hell knows.

Let's agree our politics seem, as GOP Sen. Lindsay Graham just described his party, "bats- crazy."

Now, let's look at the Democratic primary for the right to challenge Republican Sen. Pat Toomey this fall.

It's April 26. It offers very different choices. And it's wide open.

A Franklin & Marshall College poll shows a majority of Democrats, 56 percent, don't know how they'll vote.

No wonder. There's little attention.

But choices are a military guy, an environmental woman, a giant with tattooed arms, and a maker of springs (metal coils, not seasons).

This is what we call an interesting ballot.

Former congressman and retired admiral Joe Sestak, 64, has been running (with unsettling intensity) since losing to Toomey six years ago, but he's no favorite of party leaders.

Katie McGinty, 52, worked for Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Ed Rendell on environmental stuff, was Tom Wolf's cheerleadery chief of staff (we know how well that went) and is a favorite of party leaders.

John Fetterman, 46, the 6-foot-8 tattooed and goateed mayor of Braddock, looks like an extra from The Sons of Anarchy.

And Joe Vodvarka, 72, owns a small spring shop in Allegheny County and wants his country back.

(Sestak got Vodvarka tossed off the ballot with petition challenges in 2010 and is seeking to do so again. In 2012 Vodvarka got 19 percent of the vote in a primary loss to Bob Casey.)

The F&M poll didn't include Vodvarka but shows Sestak leading with 21 percent, McGinty at 12 percent and Fetterman at 8 percent.

Here's why the race could be fun. It invites conventional wisdom in a year such wisdom hasn't been wise. It suggests Sestak or McGinty.

Sestak leads the money race and almost beat Toomey in 2010, a GOP year nationally.

Sestak's resume includes the U.S. Naval Academy, Harvard, National Security Council and a 31-year military career. About 900,000 veterans live in the state.

McGinty has party establishment and union support as she seeks to become the state's first female senator after failing in 2014 to become the state's first female governor. She finished last in a four-way primary with just 8 percent of the vote.

But she's backed by national groups such as Emily's List and the League of Conservation Voters as Hillary Clinton, running to become the first female president, is certain to carry the state.

Still, Sestak and McGinty, aren't new, aren't offering much different, aren't particularly exciting candidates.

Even their state party chairman, Marcel Groen, sees Fetterman as "the toughest" for Toomey to beat in the fall.

That's because there's more to Fetterman than size and appearance.

"If I knocked on my own door and I didn't know me, I wouldn't open it," he says.

But 10 years as mayor of an 80-percent African American, poverty-engulfed former steel town, and years working for AmeriCorps and helping locals get GEDs, hardwires him to issues that are important to Democrats.

Dealing with inequality, joblessness, gun violence, poverty, gay marriage, poor schools and crime are, for Fetterman, experiences, not talking points.

One arm is tattooed with Braddock's zip code, the other with the dates of every local homicide since he took office.

You can call that odd - or commitment.

Yeah, he's unusual. He wears only work clothes because his constituents do. He lives "a blue-collar lifestyle" with his wife and three kids supported by his parents and his $150 a-month salary, despite degrees from UConn and Harvard.

He won't have the resources of Sestak or McGinty. He supports Bernie Sanders' "political revolution" even though polling says Pennsylvania Democrats don't.

Still, The Washington Post last Friday reported that, among 30 "Bernie-crats" seeking House or Senate seats, four have any shot at winning. Fetterman's one of them.

Conventional wisdom suggests otherwise. But this year? Who the hell knows?

baerj@phillynews.com

Blog: ph.ly/BaerGrowls

Columns: ph.ly/JohnBaer