In last debate before primary, Pa. Dems seeking U.S. Senate seat make their cases

Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate are (from left) Joe Sestak

Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate are (from left) Joe Sestak

In the race for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania, Democrat Katie McGinty is already shifting her focus to the Nov. 8 general election.

During the candidates final debate Friday, McGinty ignored rival Joe Sestak and instead attacked Republican incumbent Pat Toomey, accusing him of selling out Pennsylvania’s middle class and voting against nearly every bill supporting veterans (a claim also made by Sestak, which was debunked as “mostly false” by online news outlet Billy Penn and Politifact Pennsylvania).

“I’ll do something very different than what Pat Toomey has done,” she said in her opening statement at the debate, hosted by 6abc and the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, which airs Sunday at 11 a.m.

It’s a sign McGinty, a former state environmental secretary, is feeling confident about her odds. With just days to go until the Democratic primary on Tuesday, polls show McGinty closing in on Sestak who’s been in the lead for several months. 

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After the debate, McGinty told reporters she owes her boost in the home stretch to the fact many voters are paying closer attention to the race, as well as the accumulation of endorsements from labor unions and other groups.

“For me, it’s critically important that [the public knows] there’s a real choice here in terms of someone who can fully and thoroughly fight Pat Toomey,” she said. “My track record is one that is the most clearly contrasting with his.”

As for Sestak, the retired Navy admiral and former congressman criticized the national Democratic Party, which is spending more than $1.5 million supporting McGinty. The party has resented Sestak since 2010 when he ran against establishment-backed candidate Arlen Specter in the primary and won, but lost to Toomey in the general election. 

“Money can do a lot, but it’s not everything,” said Sestak following the debate. “And so we understand that’s what powerbrokers do down in Washington, D.C. It’s all about money and bringing it to bear.”

“Pennsylvanians want somebody who isn’t owned by the establishment,” he added. 

During the debate, McGinty, Sestak and the two other candidates — Braddock Mayor John Fetterman and Joe Vodvarka — discussed their views on military spending, dealing with ISIS and other terrorist groups, and the tense relationship between police and communities. 

While three of the four candidates supported criminal justice reform, Fetterman said he favors fully legalizing of marijuana to stop the disproportionate arrest of African-Americans for nonviolent, drug-related offenses and “to remove one of the systematic cases of racism in our justice system.”

Vodvarka, a businessman from western Pennsylvania, said he believes “all lives are created equal,” but stressed his support for police officers. He also disagreed with Sestak and Fetterman who have argued for cutting the U.S. military budget.

“If you want freedom, it costs,” Vodvarka said. “It’s not cheap. You have to spend money.”

All of the candidates, except McGinty, said they would support a moratorium on fracking in Pennsylvania. McGinty said she would rather see more investment in renewable energy and tougher enforcement of environmental regulations.

In response to a question about whether to prioritize skilled undocumented immigrants for citizenship over unskilled, lower-wage immigrant workers, Sestak quoted 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney who said he would “like to staple a green card” to the diplomas of undocumented students who obtain advanced degrees. 

Fetterman disagreed. 

“The Statute of Liberty doesn’t say send us your best and brightest only,” he said. “It says send us your huddled masses.”

The primary is Tuesday. 

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