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Specter’s Sestak problem

by Tom Ferrick

If I were Arlen Specter I would be worried about the possibility of Congressman Joe Sestak (D-7) getting into the race for the Democratic nomination to the Senate.

Don’t pay too much attention to the polls (Quinnipiac being the latest) that show Specter easily beating the Delaware County Democrat. That’s just proof that Sestak is an unknown outside his home base. If Sestak decides to run—and he is making loud noises that he will—he could be a formidable opponent with a good chance of winning the 2010 Democratic primary.

There are a number of ifs—aren’t there always?—but let me begin by enumerating Sestak’s strengths.

He is 21 years younger than his opponent. He is reliably liberal, a plus in the eyes of Democratic primary voters. Best of all, he has a great personal story to tell that could appeal to voters. To summarize his background:

Sestak is an ethnic (Slovakian descent) Roman Catholic, comes from a family of eight kids, is a U.S. Naval Academy grad who served 31 years in the Navy, rising to the rank of three-star admiral with time spent not only on the high seas, but also in the White House, as a military adviser in the Clinton administration. Oh, and in his spare time, he got a Ph.D. from Harvard.

In 2006, Sestak defeated Republican incumbent Curt Weldon in a district that has traditionally leaned Republican. In 2008, he impressively defeated his Republican challenger by nearly 20 points.

It’s the stuff 30-second commercials are made of (cue in: footage of American flag; Sestak in uniform, Navy destroyer plying the waves, the Oval Office at the White House, his picture-perfect wife and daughter.)

If Sestak can raise enough money and if he runs an effective media campaign, that profile could enthrall Democratic voters in places like Pittsburgh, Erie, Wilkes-Barre and Scranton. Sestak could become the de facto candidate favored by voters outside the Philadelphia media market. If he fought Specter vote-for-vote in the southeast and emerged with 40-42% share in this area, he could win the primary.

Easy to say, obviously tougher to do. The point is: Sestak is a credible challenger and Specter is vulnerable on a number of fronts.

For one thing, there is the age-slash-illness issue. It’s something no one wants to talk about, but Specter’s going to be 80 next year. He’s mentally alert, for sure, but the age factor help in a race against a younger opponent.

Specter faces another dilemma: If he was too Democratic for the Republicans, he might be too Republican for Democrats, especially the more liberal Democrats who turn out in primaries. He may have strayed once in a while, but on the whole he was a Bush supporter, as Sestak will surely remind the voters.

Finally, his reason for switching parties seemed more an opportunistic, politics-as-usual move than a principled stand against the rightward drift of the GOP (later, he started emphasizing the principals and downplaying the politics of it).

Some Republicans labeled him a Judas and I don’t think he is that., but the whole switcheroo thing could be a turn off, not just to voters in the party he quit, but also to voters in the party he joined.

Of course, it’s foolish to talk about Specter’s negatives without also pointing out his positives. One is the money he surely can raise between now and the primary. The other is the support and endorsement of President Obama, who is immensely popular among Democrats.

I believe a personal appeal from the President, asking voters to support Specter, would give him a tremendous boost. It he got Obama to cut an ad, I’d run it 24/7 in all markets for the month before the primary.

The other stuff: The support of Gov. Rendell, the Democratic party organization in the state, the potential support of organized labor, means little in terms of the voters (who can make up their own mind, thank you). But, it could seriously impact Sestak’s ability to raise money.

Imagine the shock of all the big givers getting a personal call from Rendell where, for the first time, he doesn’t ask them for money. He asks them not to give money—to Sestak.
This is all hypothetical because Sestak hasn’t yet officially declared his candidacy.

If I were among Specter’s new-found Democratic friends in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. I’d do my best to make sure it remains hypothetical—and work to convince Sestak to stay out of the race.

The writer, a frequent contributor to, is a former Inquirer reporter and columnist.

•Previous columns by Tom Ferrick: Specter the survivor had no choice
Watching the tectonic plates of voter trends
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June 1, 2009 at 11:35 am

--Tom Ferrick

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