Rep. Joe Sestak (D., Pa.), a former Navy admiral, could sink Sen. Arlen Specter, a five-term Republican-turned-Democrat, in the Keystone State’s Democratic Senate primary next week.
Specter, it seems, is doing his part to help Sestak’s chances. Last night in Pittsburgh, he twice referred to a group of local Democrats as the “Allegheny Republican committee.”
Three separate polls show the pair in a dead heat. A recent Franklin & Marshall poll has Sestak leading by two, 38 to 36. A Morning Call survey shows the duo tied at 45 and Quinnipiac’s numbers show Specter up by a couple points, 44 to 42. Sestak, a second-term congressman from the Philadelphia suburbs, tells National Review Online that he’s not surprised about his climb.
“The overarching issue of this election is the lack of trust in Washington,” Sestak tells us. “When the Democratic establishment told me to sit down, I went around and decided to run against them. But this is not just about my party. Voters are fed up — there’s a pox on both your houses, they tell me. They want a change in politics, not just policy. That’s the real message. Look at what happened in Massachusetts.”
Sestak has a point. It’s been a bad month for incumbents. Earlier this week, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D., W.V.), a 14-term incumbent, was defeated in his primary. Over the weekend, Sen. Bob Bennett (R., Utah) was kicked out of his GOP Senate primary.
“The Democratic establishment has gotten off track,” Sestak argues. “They made a political calculation in order to get to 60 votes. They’ve made deals with the special interests to get Ben Nelson’s vote on health care. That kind of deal making is what turns voters off.”
Sestak says his campaign is focused on small-business tax credits, education, and health care. In a recent ad, he has been brutal, tying Specter to Sarah Palin, George Bush, and Rick Santorum. Gov. Ed Rendell (D., Pa.) calls the commercial a “very strong serve.” Specter, not one to sit back and take punches, has returned the volley with his own ad touting Obama’s support.
Specter may call himself a moderate, but “I’m the pragmatist, a John F. Kennedy-Democrat,” Sestak says. “The future is about building a new generation of leadership.” The Democratic establishment “got it wrong” by sticking with Specter,” he adds. “I understand what they’re doing, I don’t begrudge them, they’re keeping their end of the bargain, which most people don’t do in Washington, but I’m listening to the people of Pennsylvania. They don’t want Washington to be kingmakers.”
Can he beat probable GOP Senate nominee Pat Toomey in a general election? “Pennsylvania wants an independent individual to represent them, not someone who’s spent time on Wall Street and believes in trickle-down economics,” Sestak says. “They want someone who is willing to stand up to their party even if it costs them their job. I’m ready for that fight [with Toomey].”
“We knew people wouldn’t pay attention until now,” Sestak says, heading into his next event. “But I always knew that by the last week or two of the campaign, voters would start to look into why they should support a 30-year-incumbent who switched parties to keep his job. They want someone to help get us out of this mess, not someone who worked with the failed leadership of the past administration to get us into it.”