The Democratic Comeback Kid In Pennsylvania

Former Rendell adviser Katie McGinty got crushed in this year's governor's race, but she's still got a promising political future.

Katie McGinty, an environmental adviser to both Bill Clinton and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell with large political ambitions, saw her political dreams dashed when she finished last in the Democratic governor's primary this spring. But instead of the setback hampering her political career, she's back on the fast track in Keystone State politics.

Earlier this spring, McGinty was one of three Democrats running against businessman Tom Wolf for the chance to take on unpopular GOP Gov. Tom Corbett; now, as the head of Wolf's political action committee, she's his top campaign surrogate, criss-crossing the state to blast Corbett and boost her former primary rival.

In a year filled with plenty of nasty and contentious intraparty contests, McGinty and Wolf are a rare case of cooperation—and active participation—among onetime 2014 opponents. And she's well positioned to parlay that teamwork into a bid for statewide office or Congress in 2016, where her chances of success will be stronger.

Wolf tapped McGinty, who came in last in the four-way primary, to run the Campaign for a Fresh Start, the PAC affiliated with his gubernatorial bid. The group will operate alongside the official campaign and parallel to the state party, helping with communications and research as well as running the coordinated campaign for other state legislative offices on the ballot in November. As the group's chairwoman, McGinty has become the public face of the opposition to Corbett's reelection.

"We've been friends and colleagues for some time now," McGinty told National Journal of Wolf. "And so Tom reached out almost immediately after the primary and we sat down to talk about how I could be most helpful to him."

Pennsylvania's gubernatorial primary was arguably the most costly and crowded Democratic primary on the map this year: at one point, eight candidates were vying for the chance to take on the vulnerable incumbent Corbett. That field narrowed to four by the final stretch before the May 20 vote: Wolf, McGinty, Rep. Allyson Schwartz, and state Treasurer Rob McCord.

When Wolf surged ahead in the polls this spring, both Schwartz and McCord went on the attack. Schwartz questioned Wolf's transparency as a candidate and his tenure at the Wolf Organization, his family's cabinet-making business; McCord went so far as to accuse Wolf of supporting a racist former mayor of York, Pa., an ad that drew rebukes from Democrats across the state as overly harsh.

McGinty was the only candidate who didn't go negative against Wolf, a decision she explained by blasting the overall negativity of Pennsylvania politics these days.

"Look, everybody chooses their tactics and strategies," she said. "For me, Tom Corbett has inflicted so much negativity on the state that there wasn't much room for more."

Wolf ultimately won with 58 percent of the vote, more than 40 points ahead of any of his opponents. Schwartz followed with 18 percent, then McCord with 17 percent and McGinty coming in fourth with 8 percent.

Of all of Wolf's former primary opponents, state observers say McGinty is a natural fit not just because she never went negative—but because she and Wolf also have worked together in the past and knew each other personally.

Indeed, McGinty and Wolf's time serving in Rendell's cabinet—McGinty as environmental protection director, Wolf as revenue secretary—overlapped, and the two have a long history together. That fact contributed to their congenial relationship during the primary and Wolf's decision to tap McGinty to aid his campaign.

"Not only are their personalities and skills complementary—they're actually friends," said Dan Fee, a veteran of former Gov. Ed Rendell's 2002 and 2006 campaigns.

Wolf had initially named McGinty as his pick to chair the state party, a position each gubernatorial nominee generally gets to fill. But the current chairman, Jim Burn, announced he would run again instead of backing down—and in an effort to avoid an intraparty leadership fight, Wolf opted instead to create Fresh Start, running many key 2014 operations through there instead of the state party.

McGinty has begun traveling the state for Fresh Start, holding press conferences and events with local candidates to blast Corbett over issues like cuts to education funding. In her role at Fresh Start, McGinty oversees a staff that includes several former colleagues from her campaign: Her campaign manager Mike Mikus, for example, serves as a senior strategist. Other staffers come from around the state, including Elena Cross, who most recently served as executive director for the state Democratic Party.

While a candidate PAC headed by a former rival is unprecedented in the Keystone State, one-time primary opponents helping each other out in various ways isn't. Back in 2002, Ed Rendell and Bob Casey faced off for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination; after a long and expensive two-man race, Rendell ultimately won the primary and went on to win two terms as governor. Casey endorsed Rendell and helped him out during the general election—a favor Rendell returned when he endorsed Casey's 2006 Senate bid against Republican incumbent Rick Santorum.

"There is that precedent—primary opponents have come together, and not just in name," said Charlie Lyons, a longtime Casey aide.

Veteran operatives in the state say McGinty's primary run, though unsuccessful, widely impressed Pennsylvania Democrats—meaning she's both an asset to Wolf now and a future candidate, if she's interested in running. Pennsylvania strategists say it's likely she'll be back on the ballot in 2016, whether it's for a statewide position or to run in Pennsylvania's 6th Congressional District, if Republican Ryan Costello wins this fall.

"The conventional wisdom is that she was an effective candidate" who never got traction because it was such a crowded field, said Lyons. "Not only did Katie stay above the fray and stay positive, she also got pretty good reviews from the media and Democratic leaders for talking about issues, having a high level of energy, raising money—all the tools that you'd want to have for the role she's in [now]."