White House Braces for Specter Defeat

Monday, 17 May 2010 07:28 PM

By David A. Patten

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There are growing signs the White House is trying to distance itself from what it now expects to be an embarrassing defeat of incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter at the hands of Rep. Joe Sestak, a candidate the Obama administration staunchly opposed.

The polls say the contest between Specter and Sestak for the Democratic nomination to represent Pennsylvania in the U.S. Senate is too close to call. But the Obama administration is believed to have access to polls that have not yet been made public.

According to the Washington Post, CBS chief Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer told the local CBS affiliate in Philadelphia on Monday: "I have been told on background that the White House is preparing for a Specter loss here, and that the president doesn't want to be associated with that."

There are other indications the White House, which has been a dedicated Specter ally ever since he bolted the Republican Party, is bracing for his defeat.

The Specter campaign had hoped the president and the vice president would join him for last-minute campaigning, but neither will do so. Aggravating the snub is the fact that Vice President Joe Biden is in Pennsylvania to speak at his daughter's graduation ceremony, but will not campaign with Specter.
As recently as last week, Biden said he would be available to campaign with the Republican-turned Democrat "as needed."

The president also will come tantalizingly close to Pennsylvania. The MSNBC's FirstRead blog reports "And to add insult to injury, the president is traveling … on Election Day, and he’s literally flying over Pennsylvania to stump in Youngstown, Ohio, a town just across the border."

It is unlikely the president's handlers have forgotten the spectacle of Obama campaigning for candidates who lost. The most painful example was his last-minute stumping for Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who was beaten by Scott Brown in the Massachusetts special election for the U.S. Senate.

"The White House remembers the recent elections in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Virginia," University of Virginia Center for Politics director Larry J. Sabato tells Newsmax. "Obama’s appearances for the Democratic nominees for senator and governor had zero effect, judging from the results.

"It’s already obvious that if Specter loses, they’re going to attribute it all to Specter’s votes while he was a Republican," Sabato says. "Of course this won’t be encouraging to any future party-switchers. Obama carried Pennsylvania handily, and he and Vice President Biden have carried a lot of Specter’s baggage in this campaign, along with Gov. Ed Rendell."

Sabato, a savvy and impartial political analyst and author, predicts that the White House will not be able to escape all of the fallout if Specter is defeated.

"They’ll all be stuck with some of the baggage if Specter goes down," he says.

There are already indications that the president's support for Specter will be used against him. Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Monday "all of the hype … that Obama was a transformative figure whose own political success would translate into success for other Democrats has not proven to be true.”

The political capital invested by the White House on Specter's behalf has been remarkable. According to Sestak, the White House dangled the possibility of appointing him to a high level office if he would agree to drop his primary challenge.

"There has been some indirect means in which they were trying to offer things if I got out," Sestak told the Washington Post.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee funded a TV ad for Specter featuring President Obama. There also have been reports that the president's e-mail list, Organizing For America, has been used to recruit people to staff phone banks to push Specter's candidacy.

None of that has saved Specter from a steady slide in the polls. Sestak has maintained a furious pace of campaign appearances throughout the state. The latest Quinnipiac poll, conducted Sunday night and released Monday, shows Sestak with 42 percent of the vote, Specter with 41 percent, with 16 percent undecided.

Clearly the race is too close to call. Fully one-quarter of respondents who are backing a candidate say they may still change their minds. And Specter's vaunted "ground game" and campaign organization in Pennsylvania could still have a decisive impact on the outcome, sources say.

If Sestak does win, many strategists believe he will be a much tougher opponent than Specter for the GOP challenger, former Rep. Pat Toomey, in November. Recent polls support that notion as well.

The Sestak-Specter race is by no means the only big contest that will be decided Tuesday. Among the others:
  • GOP Rep. Tim Burns squares off against Democrat Mark Critz, who once served as a top aide to the late Rep. Jack Murtha, in a special election to fill the House vacancy that occurred when Murtha passed away in February. If Democrats win, they will tout the victory as a sign that they can overcome bad economic news and anti-incumbent animus in November. If Burns wins, however, it would be another indication Democrats face a very difficult midterm election. The latest Public Policy Polling survey shows Burns with a razor-thin 48 percent to 47 percent lead over Critz. Pundits say the outcome could depend on the much-touted "enthusiasm gap," which indicates Republicans are currently more motivated to vote than Democrats. A Critz win, interestingly, will not be seen as much of a victory for President Obama. Critz has been very critical of President Obama's policies during the campaign.
  • In Arkansas, big labor has been spending huge amounts of money to oppose Sen. Blanche Lincoln's bid for re-election. Although Lincoln is a Democrat, the unions blame her for helping to scuttle their coveted card-check legislation. Lincoln is expected to win the most votes in the primary, but is thought likely to fall short of the 50-percent-or-better margin of victory that she would need to avoid a runoff.
  • In Kentucky, tea party darling Rand Paul is given a good chance of defeating Trey Grayson, the preferred candidate of most members of the GOP establishment. Polls show Paul has a double-digit lead.
  • In Oregon, GOP candidates James Huffman and Chris Dudley, who are running for senator and governor respectively, are both expected to win nomination. Their prospects for November are uncertain however given Oregon's strong Democratic leanings.

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