Why you should care

Because this Pennsylvania race could help decide who controls the Senate.

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Everything about Katie McGinty is kinetic energy; All is calm, then suddenly she’s here, her neon blue power suit flashing by as she shakes hands and talks shop. I barely have time to pick up my notebook before she’s past me, zooming into the crowded ballroom at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where a hundred or so steelworker union members applaud. “I’m hopping mad,” McGinty tells them, mad about low wages, bad health care, outsourced jobs. Then she turns her crosshairs on the absent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey, whose job she’s gunning for: “You can run, but you cannot hide.”

The election is still months away, but McGinty is one of many insurgent Democrats who will challenge Republicans across 25 states nationwide in 2016. The Democrats, who have to defend only 10 seats, hope to take back a majority of the U.S. Senate by picking up four. Whip-smart and unrelentingly optimistic, McGinty is a former White House environmental adviser to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, the former head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection and married to a climate analyst who studies the positive impact of green energy on the economy. She touts her record as a wind-and-solar proponent who also accepts the natural gas industry (if taxed and regulated). “I view environmental challenges as economic opportunities,” McGinty says, from stump to stump.

She’s caught in the same tug-of-war as the rest of the state, between the environmental concerns some have voiced about fracking … and the promise of jobs that it provides for the state.

McGinty’s race is one of the best chances for Democrats, writes Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball politics blog, because the state is more Democratic than the nation as a whole. While the race will favor the incumbent, McGinty could ride a Hillary Clinton wave — think Pennsylvania headlines proclaiming “First Female Senator, First Female President” — and, in that case, “Toomey will be in real trouble,” Kondik says. In purple Pennsylvania, the red rural regions and blue cities add up to a confusing mix: The state has backed the Democratic presidential candidate every year since 1992, but narrowly elected Toomey to the Senate in 2011. (Toomey’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)

There’s something muddying Pennsylvania waters, which might get a spot or two on McGinty’s campaign: hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process by which natural gas is produced from the earth. Just two years ago, McGinty served as a managing director overseeing green business initiatives at an energy consulting firm that’s a member of the Marcellus Shale Coalition. In plainspeak, she’s caught in the same tug-of-war as the rest of the state, between the environmental concerns some have voiced about fracking — critics say it pollutes water supplies — and the promise of jobs that it provides for the state. (Oil and gas extraction and pipelines currently employ about 12,000 in the state, according to Rob Altenburg, director of the PennFuture Energy Center, and industry estimates have that rising with further investment.) The state’s business interests make any attempts to ban fracking a political minefield for candidates, so most, like McGinty, focus on making the process safer or deciding how to tax it, says Keystone College political scientist Jeff Brauer.

Katie McGinty Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo

Her critics call Katie McGinty an establishment pick in an era bent on anti-establishment fervor.

Source Alvaro Tapia Hidalgo for OZY

Away from the ballroom to where it’s quieter, McGinty sits with me, and I ask if her fracking views put her in an uncomfortable middle ground (some would say crossfire) between the gas giants and green activists. “No, no, it’s very healthy,” the tall brunette demurs. “That debate is what our democracy is about.” She’s all about that glass being half-full: for instance, the ramifications of her low finish (fourth out of nine candidates) in her 2014 run for governor? “People responded positively,” she declares, thanks to her refusal to engage in “the politics of destruction.”

Keystone College’s Brauer says that’s a rosy outlook. “She’s never won a race in her life,” he says, and is perceived as an establishment pick in an era bent on anti-establishment fervor. Republicans are quick to point to the budget crisis that exploded under the governor while McGinty was chief of staff, which was still happening when she resigned to start campaigning. “That’s her legacy,” says Megan Sweeney, communications director for the state’s Republican Party.

A chuckle isn’t ever far away, a kind of what can you do? gesture that the 52-year-old calls a coping mechanism for the chaos of being born the second youngest of 10 kids. McGinty’s father, a Philadelphia cop, and mother, a restaurant hostess, sent her to Jesuit schools, where her love for science led to her majoring in chemistry at St. Joseph’s University and law at Columbia University, before heading to the White House. She and her husband moved to India for a year in 1998, where they adopted their two oldest children, Tara and Alana, now 16 (their third child, Allie, is 14).

“I get my Irish up,” is McGinty’s catchphrase for when she gets worked up about an issue, from the national minimum wage (too low, she says) to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, among other concerns, she says, doesn’t protect U.S. patents overseas past five years. Offhandedly, McGinty plays often on her working-class mentality, saying that she likes to knock back a Miller Lite and considers culture to be a night watching Looney Tunes and the Three Stooges. Just as easily, she invokes the American dream: The “secret sauce” of what makes the country great is making sure that people still believe working hard will get them ahead.

This article has been updated to clarify McGinty’s role at an energy consulting firm.

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