Pennsylvania's Senate race, which only two weeks ago seemed irretrievably lost for Democrats, is suddenly a wellspring of hope after an independent poll unveiled late Tuesday showed Rep. Joe Sestak (D) leading by 3 points over former Rep. Pat Toomey (R).
In a year when the Democrats seem likely to suffer heavy losses in the House and Senate, the Pennsylvania race has now emerged as a potentially important face-save for Democrats in a key presidential swing state. The Sestak resurgence also reduces the GOP’s already slim hopes of capturing a majority in the Senate and, at minimum, could force the party to divert resources to Pennsylvania that were once slated for other races.
The Allentown Morning Call/Muhlenberg College poll reported Sestak leading Toomey 44 percent to 41 percent, with 15 percent undecided. They are the first results of what will be a daily tracking poll until the election on November 2.
It’s the first independent poll to show what Democratic internal polls began reporting last week, when two of them showed Sestak in a dead heat against Toomey. Public Policy Polling, a Democratic-aligned firm, released a survey Monday that showed Sestak with a 1-point edge, although Republicans scoffed that it was overly favorable to Democrats.
They’ll have more trouble dismissing the Muhlenberg College survey, which is a respected independent poll in Pennsylvania.
The results are a stark reversal of most of the previous polling data. Surveys conducted through the summer and early fall showed Toomey maintaining a comfortable lead, usually 6 to 8 percentage points.
Sestak’s sudden, startling surge seems mostly attributable to an aggressive barrage of ads from his campaign and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The spots have focused on a range of issues, including charges that Toomey would outsource jobs to China and that he would be a shill for Wall Street, where he used to work.
“Sestak has had a lot of commercials -- he’s spent a lot of money the last few weeks,” said Jim Roddey, chairman of the Allegheny County GOP. “They have been very negative, and I think they may have taken some toll. I think it’s tightened up significantly, and I think it’s going to be very close.”
The ads might be moving mostly Democrats, particularly working-class whites in Western Pennsylvania who have trended away from the party since President Obama took office and seemed reluctant to support Sestak. The PPP poll found Sestak now enjoys 77 percent support among Democrats, compared to just 64 percent in August.
“Over time, the message begins to sink in,” said T.J. Rooney, former chairman of the state Democratic Party. “Democrats are coming home. It happens every election.”
In a state with 1 million more registered Democrats than Republicans, motivating the party base is enough for statewide Democrats to make significant gains in the polls.
And Sestak, a former Navy admiral, is no stranger to political comebacks. Most pundits had written off his effort to unseat incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter months before their mid-May primary, but the congressman overcame a double-digit deficit in a matter of weeks and won easily.
And although Toomey is in a stronger position than Specter, whose party switch in 2009 left him politically crippled, a voting record more conservative than former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum does make him vulnerable in the generally left-leaning state. Remember: Until the summer of 2009, it was hardened conventional wisdom among state Republican leaders that Toomey, who narrowly lost to Specter in a 2004 GOP primary, was too conservative to win in Pennsylvania.
“They’re arguing Wall Street versus Main Street, and they’re arguing his policies on trade will hurt the average worker,” said Terry Madonna, a pollster at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “And in Toomey they got the poster child for those things.”
This article appears in the October 20, 2010 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.