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Democrats' best hope in Pennsylvania isn't their Senate candidate. It's Donald Trump.

Katie McGinty, the Democratic party's nominee for Pennsylvania's Senate seat in 2016.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty

Just two years ago, Katie McGinty came in fourth place in the Democratic primary for governor of Pennsylvania. There were only four candidates running. She gathered only 8 percent of the vote.

Now, she's the party's nominee for Senate in one of the most hotly contested races in the country.

The night-and-day difference between McGinty's performance in 2014 and 2016 is an illustration of just how much difference the support of the party makes.

In her Senate primary against 2010 nominee Joe Sestak (and Bernie Sanders-esque outside candidate John Fetterman), McGinty got the endorsement of everyone from Barack Obama and Joe Biden on down.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell is running her campaign. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has sent over $1.5 million McGinty's way; no other non-incumbent Democrat has gotten more than $14,000. In total, outside groups spent $4 million on her.

The effort secured the nomination for McGinty, as seen by her surge in the polls:

This was less because the party loved McGinty than because it hated her opponent Sestak; in fact, party insiders had spent several months trying to recruit other prominent Pennsylvania Dems to run before consolidating around McGinty.

But the party's attention to McGinty has also turned her into a stronger candidate — or at least a more media-ready one. Philadelphia Daily News columnist John Baer wrote in March that the "over-peppy cheerleader" vibe McGinty gave off early in the campaign had been replaced (he suspected due to media training) by a "focused and deliberate" candidate.

Her surge over the campaign's last few weeks is proof that the work paid off.

The question is whether she's strong enough to defeat incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey in the fall — or whether, with Trump at the top of the GOP ticket, there is even such a thing as a weak Democratic candidate.

A former lobbyist — but the acceptable-to-Democrats sort

McGinty's background is in environmental issues, through the lens of Democratic politics. She worked for Al Gore in the US Senate (Gore endorsed her during her failed 2014 gubernatorial run) and Bill Clinton in the White House; under Rendell's administration in Pennsylvania, she led the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Between the two, she worked in the fuzzy twilight world between business and policymaking that supporters might call "green business" — and opponents would call outright lobbying.

That's the line Toomey started taking against her even before she'd won the primary: that she was a greedy lobbyist out only to enrich her clients and herself.

The attacks have some basis in an ethics investigation of McGinty's time at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, when she gave grants to organizations for which her husband was a consultant. (Ethics rules in the state have since been changed to ban that sort of thing.) But the reason they're worth keeping an eye on goes way beyond the facts of what McGinty has or hasn't done.

For one thing, McGinty is likely to be running down ballot of Hillary Clinton — another woman who's been accused of doing whatever it takes to accrue money and power for herself and her husband (including using her political position to help her husband's clients).

Pennsylvania voters don't know McGinty, but they do know Clinton — and the state will be a battleground in both the presidential and Senate races. If some Pennsylvanians decide they fear Donald Trump more than they hate Hillary Clinton, but that they hate Hillary Clinton enough to hate Katie McGinty too, they might split their tickets: voting Clinton for president and Toomey for Senate.

Even beyond this cycle, McGinty's appeal as a candidate will be an interesting test of Democrats' ability to win over Rust Belt voters. Republicans are betting that an insistence on bringing jobs back to the US, and ending the "war on" conventional sources of energy, will keep manufacturing- and mining-heavy regions red. Democrats' response to that under the Obama administration has been to hype the possibility of "green jobs" — that saving the climate will also be good for the people who used to be employed on the front lines of its destruction.

But it's not clear whether "green jobs" resonate with voters, or if they seem like yet another business-friendly initiative from a party that doesn't understand real America (an accusation that will certainly be levied against Democrats if Trump and Clinton are the nominees). It will be interesting to see if McGinty can persuade Pennsylvania that caring about environmental businesses and caring about the well-being of the state are one and the same.

Does the Democratic candidate even matter when Trump's on the ticket?

Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty of Pennsylvania.
This does not look like someone who is comfortable on the campaign trail. Luckily for Democrats, she might be running against the party of Trump.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty

Of course, none of this may matter at all. In fact, Democrats may very well be hoping it doesn't.

If the sole criterion in this Senate primary had been how popular each candidate was versus Pat Toomey, Sestak would have won in a walk. Sestak may have lost when he faced Toomey in 2010, but it was a terrible year for Democrats across the board — indeed, Sestak ran 7 percentage points ahead of the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. And this time around, Sestak consistently performed better against Toomey than McGinty did — one poll in mid-March had her down to him by 13 points.

Even with the high-profile endorsements and insider track, it took McGinty until last week to pull even with Sestak in (some) primary polls. And the party had to pour millions into her candidacy to do it — even before what is likely to be a hotly contested general election in a very expensive advertising state.

Pennsylvania Democrats made a bet that Sestak's mavericky stubbornness would have been a liability in the general election, while McGinty's ability to take direction will help her run the strongest possible campaign against Toomey. That might be correct. It might be a bit of post-hoc justification for supporting the weaker candidate just because they hated the stronger one.

Or — and this might be the most likely option — the difference between McGinty and Sestak as candidates barely mattered. Because Donald Trump is likely to be the Republican nominee for president, and Donald Trump is massively unpopular with the general electorate.

McGinty's already talking about the "Toomey-Trump" agenda — a talking point that every single Democrat in a contested congressional election is likely to bust out between now and November. If Pennsylvanians continue to hate Trump as much as they do, whether they vaguely like Toomey or vaguely dislike McGinty probably won't matter. (And even the split-ticket option I mentioned above is unlikely to happen unless McGinty manages to really distinguish herself in a bad way.)

McGinty might not be the strongest Democrat the party could put up against Toomey. But this cycle, the fact that she is a Democrat might be all that matters.

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