WASHINGTON (AP) — Democrats are increasingly optimistic they will take back control of the Senate in November, buoyed by establishment wins in Maryland and the key battleground state of Pennsylvania.
Former government official Katie McGinty easily dispatched Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania's Senate Democratic primary on Tuesday, benefiting from an infusion of cash from national Democratic groups and last-minute backing from Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama.
Democrats now have the candidate they want to take on GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, one of the most endangered Senate Republicans as Democrats aim to net the four or five seats they will need to retake the Senate majority they lost two years ago. With Donald Trump moving closer to locking up the GOP presidential nomination, Democrats also sounded gleeful Wednesday about linking Republicans like Toomey to the top of the ticket. That's a strategy Republicans have already made clear they will do everything in their power to combat, by localizing their races and distancing their candidates from the nominee where necessary.
"The map is improving every week," said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, predicting Democrats will pick up five Senate seats in November (they need net only four if they keep the White House, since the vice president casts tie-breaking votes in the Senate).
"We think that Katie McGinty brings a new level of energy to the Democratic side and a fresh face," Durbin added. "I've seen her campaign, I've seen her raise money, she really is a natural and we're glad to have her as our standard-bearer."
Pennsylvania is likely to favor Democrats in a presidential year, and if Hillary Clinton is their nominee Democrats hope Pennsylvania voters will be energized by the opportunity to vote for women for president and Senate. But Republicans scoffed at the notion of McGinty, who has not previously held elected office, as a strong general election candidate. They argue she won the primary only on the strength of national Democrats' intervention and will flounder once Republicans begin highlighting weaknesses such as her history of moving in and out of government and the private sector.
"Make no mistake, voters across Pennsylvania will be thoroughly informed of McGinty's shortcomings as they compare to the strength and leadership of Sen. Toomey," said Ward Baker, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Establishment Democrats scored another victory in the Maryland Democratic Senate primary to replace longtime Sen. Barbara Mikulski, where two House Democrats faced off in a nasty and personal battle with overtones of gender and race. Rep. Chris Van Hollen ended up with a comfortable margin over Rep. Donna Edwards Tuesday night, though either of them would have been strongly favored to win the general election in the Democratic-leaning state.
Mikulski, the longest-serving female senator in history, shrugged off a question about the nasty tone of the race to replace her. "If you want something dainty, take up needlepoint," she said.
Still, the outcomes both in Maryland and Pennsylvania suggest Democrats are well-positioned nationally heading into the remainder of the primary season and the November general election. The one exception may be in Florida, where both parties are struggling with messy and chaotic primaries with months to go before the late-August balloting.
Democrats may also be at a money disadvantage despite strong fund-raising by some of their challengers. Depending on who ends up as the GOP presidential nominee, strategists in both parties anticipate Republican donors may start dumping money into Senate campaigns to protect their majority as a firewall against a Democratic president's Supreme Court picks and other policies.