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Can Joe Sestak win?

Can Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak come from behind to defeat Sen. Arlen Specter? AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Over the past several weeks, conventional wisdom has cemented around the idea that Rep. Joe Sestak is missing his opportunity to beat Sen. Arlen Specter in the May 18 Democratic primary, waiting too long to begin his paid media campaign to make up the necessary ground against the party-switching incumbent.

A story that ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer over the weekend caught the general sense of the race for many observers.

"He's trying so hard, and yet his Democratic primary challenge to Sen. Arlen Specter so far has all the traction of a car with four bald tires traversing an icy mountain road," wrote the Inky's Tom Fitzgerald.

And, a Quinnipiac poll released last week affirmed the sense that Sestak seems to be -- to borrow a naval metaphor -- dead in the water with little sign of a political wind kicking up.

But, conversations with a variety of Democratic strategists who are unaligned in the race suggest that the conventional wisdom about the race is wrong.


First and foremost because Sestak is sitting on $5 million (as of the end of 2009) -- a not insignificant sum that should allow him to fight Specter somewhat evenly on television in the final month of the race. (Specter ended 2009 with a whopping $8.7 million in the bank.)

Second, Sestak has clearly chosen to run a truncated campaign -- believing that a short race will allow him to better neutralize the spending edge that Specter has while also driving home the negatives against the incumbent -- starting with the fact that he switched parties in the spring of 2009 --- in a sustained way that will leave a mark with voters.

The "hold your fire" approach is a hallmark of the Campaign Group, the media firm handling Sestak's ads, noted one Pennsylvania Democratic strategist. The source pointed out that in the 2007 Philadelphia mayoral race, Michael Nutter -- a Campaign Group client -- waited until the very last minute to go on television but managed to catapult past his opponents to win the race.

"They like to keep their powder dry until the last possible minute and go up as hard and as aggressively as they can and sustain it through Election Day," explained the source about the Campaign Group strategy.

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Third, there is a widespread belief that Sestak has room to grow while Specter is at hi acme with Democratic voters. The Q poll showed that just 12 percent of likely Democratic voters didn't know enough about Specter to offer an opinion while a whopping 58 percent said the same of Sestak.

Sestak has the money (as we noted above) and the story to tell -- military service, defeated a Republican incumbent in 2006 -- that should give him an immediate boost once he begins to tell it on television.

Specter, on the other hand, is almost universally known and almost certainly won't be able to move his numbers in a significant way with positive ads.

Given all of that, negative commercials -- and the ability of each candidate to drive home those negatives on the stump -- will decide the winner.

Sestak's negative attack is simple: Arlen Specter isn't really one of us. Expect Sestak to drag out the ads from Specter's 2004 primary race in which he was endorsed by -- among others -- President George W. Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum as proof.

(Santorum caused further problems -- and proved how tough a challenge Specter will have in convincing Democrats of his bona fides -- over the weekend when he alleged that Specter had secured his endorsement in 2004 by promising to vote for Bush's Supreme Court nominee. Specter immediately denied the charge.)

Specter's hit on Sestak -- if early returns are any guide -- will focus on the fact that the Congressman has missed more than 125 votes since the campaign started, a sign that Sestak doesn't deserve a promotion.

Each side has a case to be made -- and the money to make sure that every likely Democratic primary voter hears it. Specter has to be considered a slight favorite today due to his financial, organizational (the AFL-CIO endorsed him late last month) and polling edge but declarations that the race is over are off the mark.

Expect a barn-burner in the final month.

By Chris Cillizza  |  April 13, 2010; 2:20 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: National Republicans hammer on health care in PA-12


My feelings about Specter are that he is centrist, and thats why both sides can carp about him, and that's why he started as a democrat, became a republican and has now switched back. As he said, his brand of moderate republican no longer had a voice in the party, so maybe it was time to be a moderate Democrat and still be heard. You'll notice that Snowe, Lugar, Collins and Voinivich have vanished from the discourse in the past year. they have silenced themselves, or been silenced.

I'm glad Specter became a Democrat. He has delivered several important votes for us and he hung in there for those awful town halls all last summer. I would have rathered that he had viewed this part of his career as a 'victory lap' and hadn't chosen to run again. But he didn't, and I will vote for him. He has been a good senator for Pennsylvania and I think he will continue to be that.

I do not understand the demonizing of Pelosi. She has been a first rate Speaker of the House, delivering for Obama over and over. That's her job. Bully? Arm twister? If she was a bully or an arm twister her party wouldn't have had 10% of their membership vote against HCR. Look across the aisle for bullying and arm twisting. You'll notice how the Republicans meekly fall into line behind their leadership.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | April 14, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

I have always voted for spector but not this time a vote for spector is a vote for pelosi because he does what she wants when she pulls his string. I will vote for sestak along with the rest of my family

Posted by: ricciuti1 | April 14, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

I don't know if Sestak can win or not; I'd rather he win than Specter. I won't vote for him, however. I voted for Specter repeatedly and have come to the conclusion that he is simply devoid of convictions. And I can safely say that that I will not be voting again for either Specter or my Democratic congressman. They've made it pretty clear that they don't care about their constituents.

Posted by: Lilycat1 | April 14, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Republicans were very unconcerned about the will of the people when it came to keeping Al Franken out of his Senate seat for almost 6 months.

I think the Supreme Court appointee hearings this summer will give Specter a chance to show how much of a Democrat he is willing to be now. I think Specter will look Senatorial, and folks will look at Toomey and recall that he is a CforG nut, eager for the kind of weak, small government that yields dead miners, unhealthy food, bridge collapses, unemployment and unfettered financial chicanery.

Posted by: margaretmeyers | April 13, 2010 7:45 PM | Report abuse

What the American People don't realize is Obama's health care plan is NOT PAID FOR.

There are massive new taxes to come.



At this rate, Obama will have 20% of America's GDP going to INTEREST on the national debt.

The situation is serious.

Obama has really hurt this nation.


Posted by: 37thand0street | April 13, 2010 6:58 PM | Report abuse

Actually, the public voted to have 100 senators. And I didn't see any outrage from the street corner when a southern Democrat switched parties.



Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | April 13, 2010 6:48 PM | Report abuse


One has to remember that Specter switched parties, and was actually the 60th vote for that time -

the public never voted to have 60 Senators.


Posted by: 37thand0street | April 13, 2010 6:38 PM | Report abuse

If I were in PA I would vote for whomever had the biggest lead over Toomey, and that would be my sole criteria. I would guess a lot of Dem voters might feel like that.

Posted by: drindl | April 13, 2010 4:54 PM | Report abuse


I'm already salivating at the prospect of this primary! Perhaps the prevailing anti-incumbent wind might actually work against Specter?

As you've pointed out, party-switchers traditionally often lose out in elections based on their new party affiliation. And Sestak is a real fighter--I've seen him in action (politically, not militarily). Of course, they don't call Specter 'Snarlin' Arlen' for nothing.

The real question is, would Sestak, assuming he prevails, be able to win over Toomey. This is such a volatile cycle that Toomey's fairly extreme stands and Club For Growth background might not be the kiss of death that it would be in a different year. Curiouser and curiouser!

Posted by: sverigegrabb | April 13, 2010 4:25 PM | Report abuse

Can Sestek win? Yes, but not likely. The 05/18 primary is very close, Specter has a 53%-32% lead and Specter also has a pretty nice financial edge over Sestek. True, Specter is likely at a high in the polls right now, not a bad place to be approx. 1 month before the primary election. He's not going any higher, but could knock Sestek's approvals down through negative advertising. If Sestek spends $5 million and Specter spends $6 million Sestek likely gets the best of the battle and makes it closer. But, does Specter still win? Sestek is fighting a very uphill battle trying to beat out someone who leads with over 50% of the vote in 1 month's time. That's a tough hill to climb, especially against someone as hard nosed and politically savvy as Specter. I must believe Specter is the likely winner here, but Sestek will spend and make a hard try to win it. I think it will be close, but we will see if Sestek can do what Tray Grayson is doing to Rand Paul in Kentucky. The difference is that Grayson has the national Republican support behind him as Sestek does not, an example is how the Unions have endorsed Specter after his votes against EFCA. Enough said on that argument. Specter is the favorite in this primary, although it's likely to be close. Sestek has to convince the Union members to vote against their leaders and for him to win. Tough job, but it could be done.

Posted by: reason5 | April 13, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

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