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Legacy Content / ON THE TRAIL

The Sestak Factor

Does A Sophomore Congressman With Low Name Recognition Have What It Takes To Knock Off Arlen Specter?

June 30, 2009

Sophomore Rep. Joe Sestak, D-Pa., has made an art of the non-announcement announcement. About once a week Sestak drops a well-placed hint about his intention to challenge Sen. Arlen Specter in the 2010 primary without ever saying that he's actually running. At this point, though, there's no one who thinks Sestak's staying in the House.

At first blush, this situation looks like a win-win for the White House. The more pressure Specter feels from his left flank, the more likely he is to stick with the Obama agenda. Meanwhile, with former Rep. Pat Toomey likely to be the GOP standard-bearer, Democrats' chances to hold this seat, even if Specter loses the primary, remain good. Why? Well, conservative GOP candidates haven't been faring all that well here. The only Republicans to win a statewide race in the last eight years are Attorney General Tom Corbett -- and Specter.

Sestak's military background could help him appeal to conservatives even while he attacks Specter's record from the left.

 

Even so, can we really assume that Sestak, who's never had a real race, will be a strong general election candidate? Sestak's win in 2006 had as much to do with incumbent Curt Weldon's implosion as Sestak's strengths.

Right now, Sestak and Toomey both start out as blank slates to most voters in the state. Yet both have voting records and lengthy writings and TV transcripts to mine for controversial material. This puts even more pressure on both candidates to define themselves to voters before another candidate does it for them. We have to assume that the Democratic primary campaign is going to be expensive and very contentious. Specter is not going to hold back, and no one knows how Sestak's going to respond to those attacks. This means that the first impression voters get of Sestak could be fairly negative.

Can Sestak beat Specter? Three polls taken in May, two by Democratic firms and one nonpartisan poll, showed Specter out front, in the mid- to low-50's, with the little-known Sestak taking anywhere from 16 percent to 34 percent. This means that to win, Sestak would have to do more than convince undecideds to move his way; he would have to peel voters away from Specter's column. But a mid-June poll taken by Franklin & Marshall College showed Specter getting just 33 percent of the vote, with Sestak at 13 percent and almost half of Democrats undecided. More ominous for Specter was the fact that his job-approval ratings had dropped 18 points since March, suggesting that the more time Specter spends as a Democrat, the more wary rank-and-file voters are of him.

The assumption is that Sestak will try to run to the left of Specter. But how far to the left he goes could have strategic implications. In the exit poll taken during last year's Barack Obama-Hillary Rodham Clinton primary, 40 percent of the state's Democratic primary voters identified themselves as moderate, with another 10 percent identifying as somewhat or very conservative. Sestak's military background could help him appeal to conservatives even while he attacks Specter's record from the left.

Another important issue is geography. In the presidential primary, 38 percent of the vote came from Philadelphia and the Philly burbs, while 26 percent came from Western Pennsylvania, including Pittsburgh. With Specter and Sestak both hailing from Philly, the west is going to be more important than ever. But will the Philly-to-Pittsburgh ratio be as lopsided in '10? There are now more registered Democrats in the Philadelphia suburbs than there were 10 or 15 years ago. Yet there's also a very competitive primary for governor in 2010 that features a western candidate, Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato, versus an eastern one, Philly businessman Tom Knox. This isn't to say that the Pittsburgh vote will suddenly become equal with Philadelphia, but it does mean the turnout in the west could be a bit higher. It's not yet clear who that would help.

The Greenberg Quinlan Rosner poll in May showed Specter with his strongest favorables in the Philadelphia area, but he was still over 50 percent in both central and western Pennsylvania. Yet in his 2004 contest against Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D), Specter easily carried the suburban Philadelphia vote (Bucks, Montgomery counties), but struggled in Allegheny (Pittsburgh).

The bottom line: On paper, Sestak makes for an intriguing challenger to Specter. But until we see him in action -- something he's been putting off -- it's still too soon to say that he'll be able to turn that potential into reality.

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