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Suburban Women Key To Victory In Pennsylvania Senate Race

Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty reads to children at the Western Learning Center during a campaign stop in Philadelphia.
Susan Davis
Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate Katie McGinty reads to children at the Western Learning Center during a campaign stop in Philadelphia.

At a recent campaign stop in Philadelphia, Senate Democratic candidate Katie McGinty faced a tough crowd: 4-year-olds.

"Hi! How's everybody doin'?" McGinty said, as she entered the Western Learning Center, an early-childhood program for local families.

McGinty stopped here Tuesday to tout her economic agenda with a small group of local parents; but first, it was story time.

McGinty selected "King Bidgood's In The Bathtub," the tale of a king who refuses to get out of the tub. And just as he emerges from the tub, one of the children assembled at McGinty's feet shouted out: "Eww, he's naked!"

And then, an adorable amount of chaos ensued.

"For the record, reporters, there is a towel around the king," McGinty said, laughing, as the teachers tried to quiet down the giggling group. "I checked!"

Economic issues driving 2016

At a meeting afterward with mothers of children at the learning center, McGinty outlined her economic proposals, which include child care tax credits, paid family leave and a $15 federal minimum wage.

It's clear that economic security is at the forefront of women's minds in this battleground state.

LaToya Brewington, a married mother of two children, told McGinty how hard it's been for her family to make ends meet, even with good-paying jobs. She works at a local hospital.

"I cry so many nights not knowing how I'm going to pay for this, how I'm going to pay for that," she said, "and I have a decent job. I make over $25 hour, and I still can't get child care assistance because I make that much. It's like if you've got nothing, you get it all, and if you've got a little bit of something, you get nothing."

McGinty needs to maximize Democratic turnout in Philadelphia from voters like Sareeta Hoffman. A 40-year-old mother of five, Hoffman said support for higher wages is her No. 1 issue this November.

"Most likely my vote will be for [McGinty]," Hoffman said. She had not heard of McGinty before Tuesday's event, but she felt like McGinty understood her struggle. "My children are my everything," she said, "and I like the fact that she's a parent and can relate to that as well."

A different kind of security

First-term GOP Sen. Pat Toomey is also campaigning on security, but through a different lens. Toomey has laser-focused his campaign on national defense and domestic safety issues.

His support for enhanced background checks for gun sales — even though his bill ultimately failed in Congress — earned him the endorsements of two gun control groups, helmed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who was shot in the head at a 2011 constituent event.

Bloomberg and Giffords are both household names who are influential among female swing voters.

Bloomberg's group is airing a powerful ad in support of Toomey that features the daughter of the principal of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. "She died that day protecting the young children in her care," she says in the ad. "When it came time to vote on background checks, Pat Toomey crossed party lines to do the right thing."

McGinty has fired back with ads touting Toomey's A rating from the National Rifle Association.

He has also won the endorsement of Pennsylvania's Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 40,000 law enforcement officers in the state.

"You have also shown a strong allegiance to the law enforcement community by fighting for legislation that helps protect law enforcement officers, while on and off duty," FOP President Les Neri wrote in a letter to Toomey.

Rockin' the suburbs

The Toomey campaign held a Monday fundraiser at the Dilworthtown Inn in West Chester, a mostly upper-middle-class suburb in Chester County. Chester is one of four counties — together with Delaware, Montgomery and Bucks — that will play a decisive role in Pennsylvania.

Chester County Commissioner Michelle Kichline says endorsements from gun control groups help Toomey appeal to women in these suburbs.

"He is very rational," she said. "He's very focused. I've seen him reach across party lines on a number of issues that I think affect not only all our residents but also particularly women and children, and that's important to me as a mother."

Female voters here are often referred to as "security moms," because national and domestic safety concerns drive their voting patterns. Carol Aichele is one of those moms. She's a retired local elected official who now works at nearby West Chester University. She also attended the Toomey fundraiser.

"I think Sen. Toomey's position with respect to keeping America safe is important," Aichele said. "I can't think of any issue that's more important."

Aichele, like many moderate Republican women in these suburbs, is unenthusiastic, however, about her party's presidential nominee. Recent polls show Donald Trump trailing Hillary Clinton by 40 to 60 percentage points in the Philadelphia suburbs.

Aichele worries Trump could be a drag for Republicans down the ballot.

"We always worry about that," she said. "You never can tell whether there's going to be down ticket or not. So, it is what it is."

Seeking distance from the top of the ticket

The Trump campaign has not walked away from Pennsylvania, despite Clinton's double-digit polling lead here as well as her leads in every poll of the battleground state since the conventions.

Vice presidential nominee Mike Pence campaigned through the Philadelphia suburbs Tuesday. At a campaign rally in Pipersville, he endorsed Toomey.

"When Donald Trump and I take office we're going to work with members of Congress from here in Pennsylvania like your great Sen. Pat Toomey, who has got to go back to Washington, D.C.," Pence said to hundreds of cheering supporters.

But Toomey was notably absent from the rally. He hasn't endorsed Trump in the presidential race.

If Clinton stays on track to win Pennsylvania, Toomey is going to need women to split their tickets between her and him.

There are signs he can do it. While Clinton has a sizable lead, Toomey and McGinty are running competitively, which means he is already winning over some Clinton voters.

But McGinty has also taken a narrow lead in polls since conventions. The candidate who can win over undecided suburban women is likely to be the one who makes them feel the most secure.

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Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.