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Primaries threaten to upend Democratic establishment

Democratic leaders look forward to welcoming Katie McGinty and Rep. Chris Van Hollen to the Senate this fall — and perhaps taking control of the chamber in the process.

But outsider primary challengers — and disgruntled Democratic voters — are disrupting those carefully laid plans and turning Tuesday’s primary contests into nail-biters.

Joe Sestak and Rep. Donna Edwards don’t appear to have much in common: One’s a white, former Navy admiral from the Pennsylvania suburbs, the other an African-American single mother from Prince George’s County, Maryland.

But this week they are united by powerful Democratic leaders’ attempts both back home and in Washington to keep them out of the Senate — and elect McGinty and Van Hollen instead.

Senate Democrats and the White House have invested an unusual amount of effort in Pennsylvania to help McGinty, a former chief of staff to Gov. Tom Wolf, beat former Rep. Sestak. In Maryland, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and the state’s political establishment have thrown their weight behind Van Hollen.

Even President Barack Obama has put his political capital on the line, endorsing McGinty over Sestak and cutting an ad for her that’s run heavily ahead of Tuesday’s primary contest. And while the president hasn’t endorsed in the Maryland contest, Obama’s aides told a super PAC backing Edwards to pull an ad featuring him discussing guns.

In recent days, Van Hollen has pulled away from Edwards, and McGinty has caught up with Sestak. At least that’s what the polls and Democratic bosses say.

“Better every day,” Reid said when asked how he’s feeling about McGinty and Van Hollen.

The internecine slugfests — usually reserved for the Republican side of the aisle — carry different stakes: The Maryland seat is very likely to remain in Democratic control, but the outcome of the Pennsylvania primary could help determine who controls the Senate next year, where incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Toomey’s seat is one of the top seats Democrats are hoping to reclaim.

Top Democrats’ resistance to Sestak and Edwards isn’t even necessarily about political viability. Party leaders view both of them as less reliable potential allies in the daily trench warfare against Republicans.

But if they do upset the party favorites, Democrats hope that any hurt feelings don’t extend beyond Tuesday evening. Party leaders don’t want to create a faction of disgruntled Democrats akin to the GOP’s conservative rabble-rousers.

“It’s hard, you know,” said Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. “We’ve been able to function dysfunctionally. Republicans haven’t figured it out yet; they want to annihilate [ one another]. We’ve been able to figure out how to get through this and how to get back together. That’s the difference.”

While the race in Maryland has exposed unease over the party’s dearth of minority senators, the conflict may be even harder to patch over in Pennsylvania, where Sestak could spoil a second straight primary after defeating former Sen. Arlen Specter in 2010. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent nearly $2 million boosting McGinty, while Sestak hasn’t talked to DSCC officials or Senate leaders for months.

Sestak has done little to ingratiate himself to the DSCC, Reid or future Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer, resisting what he viewed as heavy-handed attempts to install staffers handpicked by Washington Democrats. To Sestak, there’s little upside for him to take orders from Capitol Hill.

“It’s not erratic,” Sestak said of his nature. “It’s just what we do. We’re for the people.”

While McGinty was down by double digits earlier in the race, her battle with Sestak is now looking like a tossup, according to recent poll data. She’s hit Sestak for being on the wrong side of seniors for supporting negotiations on entitlement reforms and has ridden Obama’s endorsement to late-breaking momentum. Mild by GOP primary standards, the amount of money and resources marshaled by Democrats to drown Sestak’s campaign is still remarkable. On the other side, Toomey has no opponent, despite conservative opposition to his gun background-checks bill.

Asked how the party can get over the fight if Sestak wins, DSCC Chairman Jon Tester of Montana paused momentarily: “Toomey. That’s how we get over it.”

EMILY’s List, a group devoted to electing pro-abortion rights women to Congress, has endorsed both McGinty and Edwards, and an affiliated political action committee has poured in millions for each — money that could be used in the fall to aid other female candidates in purple states.

A safe seat in Maryland could allow Edwards to develop the same seniority that allowed Sen. Barbara Mikulski to become the appropriations chairwoman. The investment by an affiliated PAC is about $3 million in Maryland and $1.75 million in Pennsylvania, but, an official insisted, “we’re going to have the resources we need” in the fall.

“It’s the way it is,” shrugged Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) about all the money being spent this spring. “Do I like it? No. Do I want public financing? Yes. You play by the rules as they are.”

The race in Maryland got uglier as primary day drew nearer, with the White House’s intervention roiling a race already leaning in Van Hollen’s favor. Much of Maryland’s political establishment has backed Van Hollen, including high-profile leaders from Edwards’ home turf, like Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker. On Monday, Martin O’Malley, a former governor and Baltimore mayor, endorsed Van Hollen.

The Congressional Black Caucus has refused to endorse Edwards, despite her pleading for it to do so. But Maryland Del. Cory McCray, an Edwards supporter, said those Beltway endorsements don’t mean much on the ground.

“In D.C., a lot of folks have endorsed Van Hollen … but how many of those elected officials have you seen out here campaigning?” he said in an interview Thursday. “If you look across Baltimore, you don’t see Chris Van Hollen’s signs much.”

The Maryland race has disturbed the national party less than Pennsylvania’s simply because it’s not a November battleground. But some Democrats on Capitol Hill dislike the optics of having just one African-American, Cory Booker, among their ranks in the Senate. Edwards would be just the second black woman elected to the Senate if she wins.

Van Hollen is viewed as a party workhorse for leading the opposition against House Speaker Paul Ryan’s budget-cutting and as a tireless soldier on the much-panned supercommittee.

With the contest so close, Democrats are treading carefully and sounding diplomatic about the race to replace Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in congressional history.

“The last month, at least, has been pretty lively,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.).

Republicans, for their part, are enjoying watching Democrats squirm for once, and they are hoping the results make things easier for them in the fall.

“There are bound to be some residual scars,” said Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, chairman of the Senate GOP’s campaign arm. “A bunch of Democratic insiders in Washington, D.C., have decided to get really involved.”

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