Sunday, September 26, 2010

Pennsylvania U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

Pennsylvania U.S. Senate

September 26, 2010
37 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Open
2008 Presidential Result: Blue State (East)

Outlook: Leans Republican

Stretching back to the spring of 2009, the Senate race in Pennsylvania has been one of the more topsy-turvy contests of this election cycle.

While he had struggled to win political races as a young man, Democrat turned Republican Arlen Specter was sent to the Senate by his state in 1980. In office, was was always considered one of the least conservative members of the GOP in the body, but was also known for being combative and at times partisan. Democrats made serious attempts to defeat his reelection bids, and a quixotic bid for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1995 went nowhere, but by 2009, Specter was considered a good bet to win reelection. Of course, he would have to win a Republican primary first. While Specter's political centrism helped him to have achieved a status of entrenchment in Pennsylvania politics, he had greatly struggled in his last reelection campaign. The incumbent just barely managed to hold off Congressman Pat Toomey in the GOP primary that year, aided greatly by the backing of the George W. Bush White House and his conservative home state Senate colleague Rick Santorum. Once nominated though, Specter won reelection that fall fairly easily, the only major victory in the state for his party that decade.

In the wake of the 2008 elections, Democrats had gained even more steam in the Keystone State, but despite approaching his 80th birthday and having survived multiple serious bouts with cancer, the tenacious Specter was considered a favorite to hold the seat for Republicans. Conservatives grumbled though about his voting record and hoped that a primary challenge would once again emerge. Toomey, who had run the conservative Club for Growth, after leaving Congress announced he would take another shot at Specter. With the GOP becoming even more conservative in the state, Specter looked like he would greatly struggle to win a primary. That left Republicans in a bind because Specter was considered the only Republican capable of holding the seat in the environment.

National Republican organizations vowed to support the incumbent Specter in a primary race, but faced with a likely primary defeat the next year, the Senator caused political shockwaves throughout the country by suddenly switching to the Democrats, giving them a theoretical filibuster proof 60th seat. Specter claimed he had grown distant from the GOP, but made it clear the move was done in order to enable him to be reelected in 2010. People from both sides of the aisle made note of the sheer political calculation of such a move, but the conventional wisdom was that Specter had pulled off a great political coup, which would likely give him another term, and the Democrats another seat for six years.

With the race shaken up, Republicans in Pennsylvania tried to look for some alternatives as many feared that Toomey might be too conservative to win statewide. A couple of more moderate potential candidates, including the state's popular ex-Governor Tom Ridge opted out, leaving Toomey as the all but certain Republican nominee. His six year quest of knocking off Specter in the GOP had finally succeeded. In the meantime, the Obama White House and the state's powerful Governor Ed Rendell insisted they now completely backed Specter's reelection and would actively work to deter any potential Democrat primary challenge. Nonetheless, after much speculation, retired Navy Admiral Joe Sestak, who had been elected to Congress in 2006, decided to challenge the newest Democrat Senator. There has been much talk about the White House having taken steps, potentially illegal, to get Sestak out of the race by promising him some sort of job for not challenging Specter. The Congressman, after having made the claim publicly, remained fairly silent on the issue for several months, before stating after the primary that former President Bill Clinton had been used as an emissary and that there was never really a quid pro quo. If Republicans take over Congress this year, the actions of the White House in intervening in the primary could be a matter of further investigation.

Specter started off the primary with an edge on Sestak. Many of the state's Democrats had been used to supporting the former Republican in general elections, and he also received the support of numerous labor unions. Never a friend of conservatives on many issues, the Senator's voting record moved even further to the left after his party switch, and he seemed to change position on issues quite quickly to satisfy voters in his new party. Sestak continued to campaign against the incumbent from the left and branded him as a political opportunist. While Specter ran ads featuring his endorsement by Obama that year, Sestak ran ads featuring former President Bush's enthusiastic endorsement of Specter six years earlier. The challenger surged at the right time and in the May primary, he ended Specter's long Senate tenure. The incumbent's gamble on a party switch, once hailed a brilliant, had failed after all. In conceding the election, Specter stated he would remain a Democrat and back Sestak in November, but he has not exactly been all that enthusiastic about his candidacy since and party divisions continue to remain.

During the brutal Specter vs. Sestak primary battle, Toomey had the advantage of watching his opponents go at it tooth and nail. With the national Democrat brand falling in esteem as 2010 advanced, Toomey polled ahead of both Democrats. As the Democrat primary went down to the wire, Republicans wondered which potential opponent would be easier to defeat in a general election. Others in the GOP were conflicted on whether they wanted to see the politician they considered shameless to be defeated ASAP in a primary, or whether they wanted the honor of beating him themselves.

Nonetheless, the general election contest between Toomey and Sestak began. The two men had become friends on the state's campaign trail, even having joint appearances at times, in which they both assailed Specter as the ultimate opportunist and what was wrong in Washington. The incumbent's defeat by the hands of Sestak in the primary eliminated a key talking point for both men, but a serious ideological divide between liberal and conservative existed for Pennsylvania voters to decide upon.

Sestak had received a bounce upon his major primary win and moved narrowly ahead of Toomey in the polls. That was short lived however, as all polls since the beginning of the summer now have the Republican ahead. Sestak's general election campaign continued to be distracted for a while over questions regarding his contact with the White House and what they may had promised him months earlier if he did not run.

The most recent polls put Toomey ahead of Sestak by five to eight points, with enough undecided voters remaining to easily determine the ultimate outcome. While there should not be much surprise if Democrat leaning voters rally around Sestak in the closing days, the conventional wisdom remains that Toomey has a distinct edge, both financially, and in line with the national environment, that appears to be favoring conservative candidates this year. The fact that economic issues are at the issue forefront this year, in a weak economy, as opposed to some of the social wedge issues, are of great political benefit to Toomey and many other conservatives running in purple states.

While he was once considered too conservative for Pennsylvania in the pre-Tea Party days, Toomey now holds the key to one of the most promising GOP Senate pickup opportunities this year, and barring some major development, will probably win by a single digit margin. His path to a Senate win would certainly be an interesting one.

Toomey campaign link:

2010 U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 8 D, 22 R
Predicted U.S. Senate Balance of Power thus far: 48 D, 45 R