Philadelphia — Both men have taken on their parties. Both hold Harvard degrees. And they seem to like each other, at least personally. But that’s where the similarities end between the two candidates in Pennsylvania’s Senate race, a clash Karl Rove predicts will “be among the country’s hardest fought.”
Republican Pat Toomey, 48, a former congressman from the Lehigh Valley, now faces Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.), 58, a former Navy admiral. Sestak’s victory in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, where he toppled Sen. Arlen Specter, a 30-year incumbent, has transformed what looked to be an insider-outsider battle for Toomey into a left-right fight. Recent polls show the race neck-and-neck. Research 2000/Daily Kos has Toomey up by five. Quinnipiac has Toomey up by two, and Rasmussen has Sestak up by four.
“This race is now much more interesting and competitive,” says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Toomey would have beaten Specter like a drum, given this year’s environment. Sestak can be far more competitive. However, my sense is that this is a GOP year in Pennsylvania. Tom Corbett, the gubernatorial nominee, should help Toomey, and there will be a great deal of straight-ticket voting in the fall. But it’s early, and some caution is in order.”
Defining Sestak as a classic left-progressive early on is a key goal, Toomey strategists tell National Review Online. “In my mind, it’s going to be a question of who brands whom first,” observed Charlie Gerow, a Republican political consultant, to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It will all turn on what happens in the relatively near future.
Unlike Specter, who flailed trying to peg Sestak as a weak leader and ran negative ads questioning Sestak’s Navy record, Toomey is determined to make the candidates’ positions the topic of conversation. “I will need to communicate a very clear contrast between Joe and myself,” Toomey says. “Joe, by virtue of his record, is a Nancy Pelosi liberal. While I am confident that Pennsylvania does not want to elect a San Francisco liberal to the United States Senate, I know that I have to keep barnstorming the state to make my case.”
Debates will be as important as new-media outreach and television ads. “I expect the two of us will have a vigorous, open, and very, very substantive series of debates,” Toomey reiterated at a Wednesday press conference. “Heck, we’ve already had two debates, and this race is just beginning. And Pennsylvanians deserve that. They deserve a campaign that’ll be based on the substantive, legitimate policy differences that we have. And I think we’re going to have that kind of campaign between myself and Joe Sestak.”
Indeed, in September and April, Toomey and Sestak held their own policy debates, sans Specter. The former focused on health care and the latter on the economy. Both were wonky, low-key events. Toomey, who served as president of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax group, after leaving Congress, says he relishes the opportunity to explain his take on the Obama agenda and fiscal policy. “At the Club, I immersed myself in budgetary and economic issues,” he says. “I became more knowledgeable and fluent on the issues that are now on the front burner for voters. They want someone who knows about the debt and how to fix it. They want someone like me, who has run a small business and understands what it means to employ workers and adjust to this kind of economy.”
GETTING THE MESSAGE OUT
To get the general-election scrap off to a hot start, his campaign released four new online ads and a new video on Wednesday highlighting Toomey’s “fiscal conservative” values. “We wanted to get out there as soon as possible,” says one of his aides. “Our ads are short, sweet, and to the point. The economy is a major focus.” Toomey already has a television ad up touting his record as someone who has “taken on both parties when they waste tax dollars. . . . Trillion-dollar bailouts and deficits, government-run health care, record unemployment. Had enough?”
Toomey hopes you have. “Sestak’s positions are chilling for small business,” he says. “There is no need for me to adjust what I’ve been doing this entire campaign, in terms of the issues I’m focused on. This is what people are worried about, this is what I know, and this is what I’ll continue to focus on.”
Meanwhile, Sestak is already hammering Toomey on his ties to Wall Street and the Bush administration. On Wednesday morning, he greeted commuters in Center City Philadelphia before sitting down for a round of network-television interviews. On MSNBC’s Morning Joe, he tried to connect Toomey to Bush and the recession. Sestak says Toomey voted for bills that set the country’s “house on fire” — a fire, he says, “we had to put out with a hose that was the economic-stimulus bill.” The Democratic state committee has also released a video characterizing Toomey as “a Wall Street and Washington insider.” Toomey brushes off the charge. “Sestak voted for the [Troubled Assets Relief Program], not me,” he says.
Former senator Rick Santorum (R., Pa.) tells NRO that he questions whether Sestak’s Bush rhetoric will work. Toomey, he tells us, is “set up very well” against Sestak. “Sestak drinks the Kool-Aid, and he drinks it by the gallon,” Santorum says. “He’s an unabashed, MoveOn.org leftist, a true believer. He ran hard to the left in the primary and was enthusiastic about it — he thinks Obamacare is the greatest thing in the world and would have voted for more stimulus. Pennsylvania will not embrace that message.”
Robert Gleason, the chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican party, agrees. He says he is “very optimistic” about Toomey’s chances against Sestak. “I always thought this would be a good match,” he says. “Without Specter, a Philadelphia legend, in the race, there may be more room for growth in the city, especially since Sestak is not a part of the Philadelphia machine. Without Specter this is also now an open seat, without an incumbent. That alone will help release a lot of money toward Toomey. Add Toomey’s tireless campaign work ethic to the mix and you have a recipe for a win.”
During his primary campaign against Peg Lusik, a conservative former gubernatorial candidate, Toomey honed his anti-Washington message, and surged to an 80 percent victory on Tuesday. Toomey’s win, in part, came thanks to his large support from statewide tea-party groups — activists his campaign hopes will spread Toomey’s fiscal-discipline message at the grassroots level.
Toomey’s ground troops aren’t the only part of his campaign that has eschewed the Beltway. Roll Call points out that his fundraising in recent months was “decidedly less Washington-based than it was when he was an elected official,” with over 50,000 individual contributions. With Sestak’s win, that’s quickly changing, as Toomey tries to boost his coffers and profile.
Nonetheless, on Wednesday, Toomey hosted a reception in Washington attended by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Sen. John Cornyn (Texas), and others. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) will host a lunch for Toomey next month. Sen. Jim DeMint (R., S.C.), head of the Senate Conservatives Fund, has donated over $60,000 to his campaign. While Toomey’s going hat in hand to Washington may not appeal to tea-party groups, his strategists say that the campaign prides itself on its ability to remain a trusted force in Beltway circles. While in Congress, Toomey compiled an 87 percent rating from the American Conservative Union.
All of these fundraising efforts are needed to help Toomey compete in the expensive Philadelphia and Pittsburgh television markets. While he has raised over $8 million, according to Federal Election Commission reports, Toomey had just $4.6 million in cash on hand as of the end of April. The Washington Post expects $20 million to be spent on this race.
RUN TO THE CENTER?
“Moderates get elected in Pennsylvania,” Gleason says; Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than one million registered voters. “In general elections, everyone usually runs to the middle. Pat has been a tough fiscal conservative his entire campaign, but remember: When he didn’t oppose the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, that raised some eyebrows on the right. I think he realizes that conservatives this year need to be strong, but can’t just be against everything. He knows that he can’t spend the campaign just skewering Obama and Sestak, that he has to have solutions. I’m confident that he will continue to do that.”
But “there is a united front out there for Pat among Republicans,” Santorum argues. “He is going to be able to run a right-of-center campaign. That doesn’t mean he runs to the center. He will just be who he is: a small government, pro-business guy. He is also not seen as passionate on some of the social-conservative issues, so there is room for him to be seen as more centrist on that front, without compromising his positions.”
A move to the center from Sestak will be less believable. Unlike Democrat Mark Critz, who won the special House election in Rep. Jack Murtha’s old district on Tuesday, Sestak is pro-choice, pro–gun control, and pro–cap-and-trade — a tough position to sell in Pennsylvania’s numerous coal-mining communities.
President Obama’s influence is another variable. On Tuesday, the president called Sestak after Specter’s concession, pledging his “full support.” Will Sestak want it? According to Rasmussen, Obama’s approval rating in the state sits at 50 percent, up four points from last month, with 47 percent disapproval. “With Pat Toomey, a real conservative, as the Republican nominee, the Pennsylvania Senate race will be a real referendum on Obama and the direction of the country,” says Terry Madonna, a political analyst at Franklin & Marshall College.
For Toomey, the road ahead remains complicated. Will Pennsylvania want a soft-spoken, smart fiscal conservative, or a liberal former admiral, as their senator? “It’s not just about which guy people like,” Toomey says, making his way to his next event. “Sestak and I shared a beer after our debates. The question this year is about policy, what’s happening in Washington, and who’s best to change it. I’m betting that this state wants a senator unafraid of challenging his party and spending. They want a choice. And now they have one.”
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.