If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
The jury is still out on that old chestnut and may be out indefinitely.
But here’s an easier one: What if the Pennsylvania Democratic Party holds a U.S. Senate primary and (almost) no candidates show up? What happens then?
That one is easier both because it might happen and also because the answer is not an epistemological puzzle. The answer is this: national Democrats as well as state Democrats lose big.
They lose because the still embryonic 2016 Pennsylvania U.S. Senate race remains one of the 10 top national races that will determine which party controls the Senate. Democrats need the Pennsylvania seat to win back the Senate as well as at least four other seats.
Losing Pennsylvania almost certainly means failure to gain control of the Senate. Even if Democrats win the presidency in 2016 it will seem a hollow win if Congress stays in GOP control.
The stakes could not be higher.
Democrats, however, are not without hope; they believe their 1 million-plus registration edge will help defeat Republican incumbent Pat Toomey, especially because more of their voters will turn out and because of the decline of ticket splitting given the increased polarization of the electorate.
But 15 months from Election Day, those still hopeful Democrats don’t yet have a candidate they think can win.
The candidate they do have — Joe Sestak — is a former congressman, Navy officer and 2010 nominee who narrowly lost to Toomey. A substantial number of Democratic Party officials don’t think he can raise enough money to win in 2016, don’t think he can run a successful campaign, don’t think he is a good fit for the party and don’t like him very much — in many cases, don’t like him at all. His iconoclastic style has left him estranged from many.
Consequently, Democrats have been scrambling to find someone to challenge Sestak, win the party nomination and defeat Toomey in the fall election. A bevy of prominent Democrats were once mentioned, including former Rep. Allyson Schwartz, Attorney General Kathleen Kane and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. None of them worked out.
Ultimately, national Democrats including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Chuck Schumer tried to recruit Josh Shapiro, a talented Montgomery County commissioner, to take on Sestak. He also declined.
For some time it looked like Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski would provide a primary opponent, but he suspended his campaign earlier this month amid an FBI investigation into Allentown’s contracting practices.
Are state Democrats out of luck and out of time?
They certainly are almost out of time. Modern campaigns require money, a workforce, and the time to create an organization. The clock is ticking louder and louder.
But Democrats may not yet be out of luck. Sitting in the wings may be one of the most formidable candidates they could run against Toomey. And she hasn’t said no!
One Kathleen McGinty — “Katie” to most — has been hiding in plain sight while Democrats fumbled around looking for a candidate. While holding down a day job as chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf, she brings an impressive resume and long list of accomplishments to the table. A former adviser to President Bill Clinton, she also served as the chairwoman of the Council of Environmental Advisors, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection and a candidate for Pennsylvania governor last year.
Numerous press reports are confirming that Democratic leaders have now approached her about running — perhaps getting into the race by late summer.
How realistic is a late McGinty candidacy? Some Democrats reluctantly believe Sestak has the primary wrapped up by now, while others doubt a challenger will still appear.
Doom and gloom pervade Democratic circles about this race.
If McGinty does run, she will be formidable, the beneficiary of political forces emerging over the past quarter century, dating back to Lynn Yeakel’s 1992 narrow Senate loss to Arlen Specter in “the year of the woman.” A palpable hunger exists for female candidates for major office in Pennsylvania. Then, too, it is likely Hillary Clinton will head the Democratic ticket in 2016, auguring auspiciously both for high Democratic turnout and for an electorate favoring female candidates.
Moreover, if McGinty runs she will have Wolf’s support, which will mean significant financial assistance as well as the support of the Wolf organization. More help will come from national Democrats while several state party leaders including powerful Rep. Bob Brady have already offered support. Against Sestak, she may have a clear path to victory running with the enthusiastic support of the party against a self-styled maverick with little party support.
Finally, McGinty is a smart, talented and savvy politician who knows her way around both Washington and Harrisburg and will bring energy to a campaign sorely lacking it so far.
Toomey, despite his conservative leanings and the registration edge against him, will be very hard to beat in 2016. McGinty might do it — and at this point, she could be the only one who can.