Can Joe Sestak win?
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.
"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.
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.
April 13, 2010; 2:20 PM ET
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