- Associated Press - Saturday, March 5, 2016

HERSHEY, Pa. (AP) - Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party committee members went through a divisive process of buttonholing, cajoling and promising on Saturday but ultimately could not deliver endorsements in contested primary races for U.S. senator and state attorney general.

As a result, the candidates will run without the party’s explicit backing in the April 26 primary election to pick nominees to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey and keep a Democrat in the attorney general’s office since the embattled Democrat Kathleen Kane is not seeking re-election.

The party’s endorsement does not guarantee a nomination, but it can plug a candidate into fundraising and volunteer networks and provides a useful campaign slogan as the party-endorsed candidate.

The tone was set early in Saturday’s process when party members rejected chairman Marcel Groen’s call to support an open primary, rather than taking the endorsement votes. In floor comments challenging Groen’s motion, former chairman Jim Burn said the timing of Groen’s motion “calls into question the motivation” to do it.

Afterward, Groen said the process is too divisive and means little more than bragging rights.

“And, frankly, we’ve been ineffective,” he said, noting that fewer than half of the party’s endorsed candidates win contested primaries.

Ultimately, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, whom Burn supports, fell just shy of winning the endorsement over Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro, a close friend of Groen’s.

With heavy support from the Allegheny County and Philadelphia delegations, Zappala won 63 percent in the attorney general’s race, just shy of the 67 percent needed for the endorsement. Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli’s name was not entered for consideration after he, like Groen, called for an open primary.

For U.S. Senate, Katie McGinty came closest to winning the endorsement vote for U.S. senator, scoring 173 votes to Joe Sestak’s 149 on the second ballot that did not include the names of the other two, lesser-known candidates, John Fetterman and Joe Vodvarka. Her strongest support also came from the Philadelphia and Allegheny County delegations.

The meeting drew some high-profile attendees, including Gov. Tom Wolf, U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, of Philadelphia, and state Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, of Allegheny, while some of the campaigns worked aggressively to win and count votes.

Before the vote, McGinty said her campaign would be fine with or without the endorsement, and she noted that she has piled up a long list of endorsements already. Afterward, her campaign touted her majority of votes as a demonstration that she had “strong grassroots support across Pennsylvania” from people who believe she is the best candidate to take on Toomey.

Burn, however, suggested that McGinty’s strong establishment support, including backing by Wolf and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, was not translating well to the party’s ground-level activists and workers.

“You would think that it’d mean that she should have gotten two-thirds,” Burn said. “She should have shut (Sestak) out.”

Sestak lost the party endorsement vote six years ago to then-U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican turned Democrat, before Sestak went on to beat Specter in the primary election. Toomey then beat Sestak in the general election.

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