In his increasingly uphill bid for reelection, Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., can’t seem to catch a break. He’s a five-term incumbent during a time of fierce anti-establishment sentiment. He’s running as a Democrat, for the first time in four decades, in a year when the party is on the defensive.
And less than one week before a tightening Democratic primary, the White House announced that President Obama will not travel to Pennsylvania to campaign for him.
If that wasn’t bad enough, Specter also must maneuver carefully around Obama’s choice for the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, whom he opposed for solicitor general last year. As his primary challenger, Rep. Joe Sestak, reminds Democrats, Specter’s 2009 vote is one on a long list of party-line votes he cast as a Republican.
New polls show Specter’s once-formidable lead in Tuesday’s primary has vanished. Despite a sizable financial advantage, the 80-year-old senator now is locked in a dead heat with Sestak, 58, a retired two-star Navy admiral who ousted a 10-term Republican in 2006 in the moderate Philadelphia suburbs and then won re-election by 20 points.
Specter started the race last year as a formidable front-runner. He lined up key support from the White House, organized labor, and Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, who predicted that, if Sestak ran, “he would get killed,” then quickly fade “into political obscurity.”
Sestak is, to be sure, an unorthodox campaigner. He’s a lackluster fundraiser and doesn’t have a formal campaign manager. But Specter has failed to put to rest questions about his 2009 party switch, which he defends by noting the GOP’s rightward shift.
“I returned to the party of my roots. What's wrong with that?” he said this week in Pennsylvania. “Look at what is happening to moderate Republicans around the country. You have Florida Governor [Charlie] Crist getting kicked out of the Republican Party.”
Sestak has won over party loyalists with a simple recitation of key Specter votes before he switched parties: He voted to confirm Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, for example, and he supported the Iraq War. He backed the Bush tax cuts and, of course, he endorsed the GOP presidential tickets of Bush/Cheney and McCain/Palin.
In a new TV ad, Sestak attacks Specter’s reasoning for his party switch (“[it]will enable me to be re-elected”), as a narrator says the senator switched parties “to save one job: his, not yours.” Perhaps even more damaging in the Democratic primary, the spot features footage of George W. Bush praising Specter in 2004 as a “firm ally.”
Some of Specter’s problems are also self-inflicted; for example, he occasionally slips up at Democratic events and refers to the audience as “Republicans.” And, as The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza pointed out Thursday, Specter tripped up during his debut as a Democrat.
Specter “was badly off his game in the days immediately following his decision to switch parties last April,” Cillizza writes. “In explaining his decision to switch, Specter didn't cite deep principles but rather his belief that his best chance to be re-elected was by running as a Democrat.
“His now-infamous quote — 'My change in party will enable me to be re-elected' — sums up the problem for Specter. (Sestak turned that quote into an absolutely devastating ad against Specter.),” Cillizza adds. “If he winds up on the short end on Tuesday, Specter may well look back to April 28, 2009 as the day he lost the race.”
Adds liberal pundit Margret Carlson, “The Republican-turned-Democrat looks "like an incumbent of two parties in a year when it’s better to be an incumbent of none.”
Waiting in the wings after Tuesday is Republican Pat Toomey, a former congressman and former head of the conservative Club for Growth, who narrowly lost a 2004 primary challenge to Specter. Regardless of who wins the Democratic primary, polls suggest a tight race this fall.
For months, Toomey has been training his fire on Specter. This week, however, the Republican called Sestak an “extreme liberal.” He released a web video criticizing costly legislation he has supported and dubbed him “Joe Saystax.” The message: Toomey is preparing for a tough race this fall — against either Democrat.
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