Philadelphia — As Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) emerged from his maroon sedan here in the West Oak Lane neighborhood, he nimbly avoided the puddles. Then, as if on cue, a nearby church chimed “Amazing Grace” as he shook hands outside the Simon Recreation Center. Things were going swell — that is, until he stepped inside. There, two middle-aged African-American women caught the senator’s eye with a smirking imitation of his Kansas drawl. “My change in party will enable me to be reelected,” they laughed. Specter did not.
Specter’s party switch, from Republican to Democrat last spring, was the nagging issue for many Pennsylvania Democrats at the polls on Tuesday. Add dreary weather to suspicions of octogenarian opportunism and you have all the makings of an upset, which is exactly what happened. Little-known Rep. Joe Sestak toppled Specter, a 30-year incumbent, in the Keystone State’s Democratic Senate primary. At this writing, Sestak won 53.8 percent of the vote, with Specter carrying 46.2 percent, according toPolitico.
Last-minute media buys helped clinch this one for Sestak. Specter — backed by the political machines of President Obama, Gov. Ed Rendell, and Rep. Bob Brady — found it increasingly difficult to shake Democrats’ take on him in the final days. The line with which the West Oak Lane ladies taunted Specter came from a 30-second Sestak clip called “The Switch,” which generated much buzz on local television and 50,000 YouTube hits. It damned Specter with his own words. “My change in party will enable me to be reelected,” Specter says twice, eyebrows raised, before the ominous narrator delivers the final blow: “Arlen Specter changed parties to save one job . . . his . . . not yours.”
It was a tack that worked. “This race was not about Joe Sestak,” says Neil Oxman, a Democratic consultant whose firm crafted Sestak’s ads. “It was a referendum on change and Specter. While Sestak is a terrific alternative — congressman, three-star admiral, Harvard Ph.D. — in the end, it was all about Specter. That’s who we made this campaign about.”
“Sestak was able to do a lot with a relatively small amount of money,” observes Larry Ceisler, a Democratic consultant and publisher of PoliticsPA.com. “Specter basically cut off his fund-raising several months ago. So they had to wait until they saw the whites of their eyes to go on television. Not only was it the right media strategy, it was their only option.”
According to numerous reports, rainy and chilly weather also influenced turnout statewide. In central Pennsylvania’s Centre County, the county office of elections projected an overall turnout of just 20 percent. In Erie County, for most of the day, the percentage of vote turnout hovered in the teens, according to the county clerk. In Allegheny County, home to Pittsburgh, similar reports emerged. And in Philadelphia, “there are no lines anywhere,” observed Charlie Young, a spokesman for the secretary of state, to the Washington Post at midday.