In two weeks, veteran Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.), a Republican-turned-Democrat, will face Rep. Joe Sestak in the Keystone State’s Democratic Senate primary. According to a Quinnipiac poll released today, Sestak is within striking distance of defeating the 30-year incumbent. Though he still trails Specter by eight points in the poll, 47 percent to 39 percent, the Delaware County congressman has climbed 13 points in a month. “The Senate race is closing and could be headed for a close finish,” says Peter Brown, the poll’s assistant director.
Quinnipiac isn’t the only poll showing trouble for the five-term senator. A Muhlenberg College/Morning Call survey released Monday shows Specter holding a six-point lead, 48 percent to 42 percent, with 11 percent undecided. Rasmussen shows Sestak within two. Pollster.com analysis has Sestak trending up. “Arlen Specter’s charmed political life,” muses John Fund of the Wall Street Journal, “may finally be coming to an end.”
Both men, however, come from the Philadelphia region, so predicting how Democratic voters will respond statewide is complicated. Jay Cost of RealClearPolitics offers his take:
My sense is that Specter will win the old Democratic constituencies – like labor unions and African Americans in the city – but Sestak should do well with newer constituencies – like upscale liberals in the suburbs whose parents were Republican. Specter will need a big lead coming out of this area to mitigate losses in other parts of the state.
It’s also important to watch Western Pennsylvania, which time and again has almost been Specter’s Waterloo. Rasmussen shows Sestak winning “conservative” Democrats by more than 20 points. Those voters are probably in the West. Specter got blown out in the West in the 2004 GOP primary, and he under-performed in the general election as well. Specter has never been terribly popular there, and at the time of his departure from the GOP, I speculated that his graceless exit from the Republican Party might have something to do with the fact that the GOP has moved West in recent decades.
The Obama White House is doing everything it can to boost the 80 year-old lawmaker. So is the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Last week, Specter’s campaign released a radio ad featuring the president and, according to the Hotline, Specter and the DSCC spent about $400,000 on a joint ad buy. In recent days, Vice President Biden has also stumped for Specter in Scranton.
Despite Sestak’s rise, Specter should still be able to (barely) pull this off. He has millions more than Sestak in the bank and full support from Washington. Plus, in most polls, Democratic voters say they see him as the party’s best chance of beating former Rep. Patrick Toomey, the probable GOP Senate nominee. As Gov. Ed Rendell (D., Pa.), a Snarlin’ confidante who once worked for Specter in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office, puts it, “it’s going to be a low-turnout election, and anything can happen in a low-turnout election. But I would believe that he’s likely to win by double digits.”