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 to Politico.
#ad#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.
“Specter needed a high turnout,” says James Lee, president of Susquehanna Polling, to National Review Online. “Normal turnout in a contested Democratic primary is 30 percent, which is what it was in the 2002 gubernatorial Democratic primary between Bob Casey and Ed Rendell. Turnout in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary was an all-time record of 54 percent. Specter needed a year more like the latter to hang on.”
But low turnout doesn’t tell us everything about Specter’s defeat. “The key to this is that Pennsylvania had a closed primary,” explains Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Sestak correctly gambled from the beginning that Democrats — once reminded of Specter’s GOP past — would vote for an alternative, regardless of what the White House or Gov. Ed Rendell said.
#ad#Indeed, in recent days, Rendell — like Specter, a former Philadelphia district attorney — has been the senator’s biggest booster, making countless television appearances. While Rendell was ubiquitous, President Obama was in Ohio on Tuesday, far away from Specter’s soggy campaign. Still, Specter’s loss “doesn’t mean that much to the Democratic party per se,” Rendell reckons, “because he’s a relatively recent Democrat — but it is devastating to the state.”
During his concession speech at the Sheraton hotel in downtown Philadelphia — his face exhausted, his eyes glistening — Specter thanked President Obama for his support. “It has been a great privilege to serve the people of Pennsylvania,” he said. “It has been a great privilege to be in the United States Senate.” Then, with his wife Joan and son Shanin at his side, he walked out of the ballroom, down the escalator, and into a waiting car — taking no questions from the press.
“Over the decades, Democrats had found Specter acceptable only in contrast to conservative Republicanism,” Sabato concludes. “He wasn’t broccoli, but sweet peas. On Tuesday, Democrats had a choice between sweet peas and ice cream.”
Whether or not Joe Sestak is a sweet pick in November, today Pennsylvanians of both parties are thinking he served Specter his just deserts.
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.