Ted Shaw and Tina Holt have a friendship forged in disagreement.
He’s a die-hard Dallas Cowboys football fan. She has Pittsburgh Steelers black and yellow running through her veins. He’s a dark-red Republican and she’s a deep-blue Democrat.
But Shaw and Holt agree that next Tuesday’s down-ballot Senate election between incumbent Republican Pat Toomey and Democratic challenger Katie McGinty is as important as the top-of-the ticket race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – for entirely different reasons, of course.
“We’ve got to have a Republican Senate to keep Democrats from spending more,” said Shaw, a 62-year-old Philipsburg resident.
“It’s important to have a Democratic Senate. Look what Republicans did to Obama,” said Holt, a 51-year-old house cleaner.
Welcome to the nation’s most expensive Senate race, a tight contest that could determine which party controls the upper chamber for the next six years.
“It’s going to come down to the wire,” said Michael Straw, a former Charlotte, North Carolina, resident who is the president of the Penn State College Republicans. “I think there are three elections in the U.S. Senate that are going to come down to the wire: Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Missouri. And I think Pennsylvania is going to be the closest of all.”
Interviews with dozens of Central Pennsylvania voters reflect the closeness of the race and a keen awareness that the state could be the decider on whether control of the Senate flips. Democrats can seize it if they gain four seats if Clinton is elected president; five if Trump wins.
Katie McGinty, I don’t know much about her. But she’s a Democrat and I hope they win so there won’t be any obstruction.
Marty Daly, 81, State College resident
The Pennsylvania race has been ground zero in the battle for the Senate, with more than $130.2 million spent by the candidates and party-aligned outside groups, according to opensecrets.org, which tracks campaign spending.
Toomey is trying to outrun Trump, whose controversial remarks about Mexican immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans and women have set him on course to lose Pennsylvania by a wide margin. Toomey has sought to escape down-ballot damage by simultaneously not embracing Trump and refusing to say whether he intends to vote for his party’s standard-bearer.
The stance allows him to appeal to two constituencies that he desperately needs to secure a second Senate term: blue-collar workers in rural parts of the state and potential ticket-splitting Democrats in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs.
He’s tried to walk the same middle ground in Washington, partnering on an unsuccessful gun control bill with Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., while touting his support for Second Amendment rights and authoring a “Blue Lives Matter” bill that calls for increased penalties for violence against police and first responders.
I understand why he distanced himself from Trump – Trump’s just a little scary.
Allan Wright, 57, a Trump and Toomey supporter from Philipsburg
Toomey is going to need all the ticket-splitting help he can get in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans among registered voters by 4.2 million to 3.3 million, according to Pennsylvania Department of State statistics.
Allen Webster, a 69-year-old enthusiastic Trump supporter from Philipsburg, understands Toomey’s strategy. But he doesn’t appreciate that the senator is distancing himself from the Republican presidential nominee.
“I don’t think it’s disloyal,” Webster said as he nursed a beer inside Philipsburg’s American Legion Post 437. “I think it’s just weak-kneed and not committed enough.”
But Straw, a 21-year-old political science and economics senior, said Toomey was doing what he had to do to survive with an unconventional and unpredictable person atop the GOP ticket.
“I dislike Donald Trump. I didn’t vote for him and I won’t ever vote for him. . . . I find him a reason why the party is currently fracturing in the first place,” said Straw, whose group is one of several college Republican organizations nationwide that haven’t endorsed Trump.
“It never impacted, or would impact, my Senate election choice. In fact, it solidified myself behind Sen. Toomey, knowing that we have a Republican incumbent willing to fight for Republican beliefs in Congress and the Senate.”
Straw and other Republicans are hopeful for Toomey’s re-election prospects, buoyed by RealClearPolitics’ polling average that has him trailing McGinty by only 4 percentage points.
“Pennsylvania is the most nationally Democratic state, the most likely to be among those states that Hillary Clinton will win by the largest margin,” said Steven Law, the CEO of the Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC tied to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that last week pumped $5.2 million into the state on Toomey’s behalf.
“Toomey probably has run the most consistent and effective campaign of our class, but it’s still an uphill fight.”
Toomey’s campaign received a jolt Tuesday from a new Franklin & Marshall College poll that found McGinty expanding her lead over Toomey among likely voters, 47-35 percent with 16 percent undecided.
I don’t like either candidate, but I’m going to do some more research, beyond the campaign TV commercials.
Kristina Edwards, 33, college student from Philipsburg
The 12-point advantage is bigger than previous Franklin & Marshall polls and larger than the average of others polls conducted in the state.
Tuesday’s survey came with an unusual disclaimer that “Readers should interpret these results with caution and in context of other recent polling.”
Ted Kwong, a Toomey campaign spokesman, called the poll “laughably wrong” and “worthless.”
Johnna Purcell, 20, secretary for Penn State University College Democrats and the president of Penn State Students for Hillary, said McGinty’s fate was linked to Clinton’s performance in Pennsylvania. If Clinton cruises to victory, McGinty’s in; if the race narrows between Clinton and Trump, McGinty could suffer, Purcell said.
“I’m hoping that Secretary Clinton’s margin won’t shrink because that would, in part, pull Katie McGinty’s numbers,” she said.
But Purcell and other Democrats in Pennsylvania’s Centre County said they had another selling point should Clinton’s lead significantly fade: Bernie Sanders.
The independent senator from Vermont defeated by Clinton 53.7 to 44.2 percent in the Democratic primary in the county, though Clinton carried the state.
Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., another liberal favorite, have campaigned for McGinty in the state.
“We sell McGinty and Sanders,” said David Ozalas, 33, a Democratic Party volunteer in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. “You have some people around here who are lukewarm on Clinton. But when you mention Sanders, people perk up.”
Holt said she’d voted for Sanders in the primary but didn’t need any encouragement or endorsement from him to vote for McGinty.
She’s fed up with a Republican-controlled Senate and House of Representatives that she says has stymied President Barack Obama’s initiative.
“That’s why I’m voting for McGinty,” she said. “It’s just a matter of Democrats having the Senate for me.”
For Holt’s friend, Shaw, the decision to vote for Toomey is an easy one.
“Toomey’s a Republican, right?” he said. “That’s good enough for me. I think McGinty’s as crooked as Hillary.”
Over at Philipsburg’s American Legion post, Allan Wright, 57, said he was voting for Trump and Toomey. He said he was unenthusiastically voting for Trump because “I’ve been a Republican all my life.”
He’s voting for Toomey because he’s afraid of what Democrats would do if they win the White House and Senate.
“These liberals are spending too much money – my grandkids will pay the price later on,” said Wright, who voted for Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich in the primary. “It’s all about checks and balances for me.”