HARRISBURG, Pa. — With four weeks to go before the Democratic Senate primary in Pennsylvania on May 18, signs are strong that Republican-turned-Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter will turn back a challenge from two-term Rep. Joseph Sestak. Either Democrat will go into the fall campaign as an underdog against the certain GOP nominee, former Rep. Pat Toomey, who has so far raised more than $7.5 million—a record for any Senate challenger in the country this year.
However, in a series of interviews I conducted while covering the Pennsylvania Leadership Conference in Harrisburg, I found that few political observers are willing to write off the insurgent Sestak in his race against the five-term Sen. Specter.
“I am surprised [Sestak] hasn’t started his TV ads yet, but I wouldn’t write him off,” said Philadelphia “superlawyer” James Baumbach, who helped orchestrate the campaigns of the late Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo and Pennsylvania’s late Gov. Bob Casey, Sr. “Joe knows how to play rough.”
Baumbach’s admonition not to dismiss the chance of Sestak upsetting Specter was echoed by former U.S. Attorney David Marston, himself a past candidate for governor and onetime top aide to former Sen. Richard Schweiker (R.-Penn.).
Marston, who has known Specter for more than forty years, told me that the senator is “very vulnerable” for two reasons: “first, age—he looks every second his eighty years; and second, the feeling that after more than three decades in the Senate as a member of two different parties, Specter is the ultimate insider and you just can’t trust him.”
Kevin Kelly is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot and now head of the “Loyal Opposition” group trying to take over and reform the Republican Party in Philadelphia. He told me he believes Specter will survive because “that deal he made with Obama when he switched means that the whole machine will be behind him—the White House, [Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed] Rendell, all of them.” Kelly also said that it was at Specter’s request that he started to organize the reform group that wants to replace the present GOP city organization with younger activists.
“He said ‘you provide the people, I’ll raise the money,” said Kelly. “We did get a lot of people, including quite a few African-Americans who want change. But he never raised any money. Then he became a Democrat.”
The latest Susquehanna Poll shows that among likely Democratic primary voters, Specter leads Sestak by a margin of 42% to 28% statewide. A Quinnipiac Poll showed Specter’s advantage over Sestak was 53% to 32%.
Catching up with Toomey at the PLC banquet, I found a candidate upbeat over his fund-raising advantage and over the latest Susquehanna poll showing him defeating Specter by 48% to 38% among likely voters statewide.
As for the Democratic primary, Toomey told me he thought “it would be very close and very competitive” but that his team would be ready for either Specter or Sestak.
Introduced as “one of our own and one of our best” by emcee Colin Hanna, the former congressman was given a hero’s welcome at the standing-room-only PLC banquet. Looking out at the crowded ballroom at the Four Points Sheraton, the Senate hopeful grinned and said: “Can you imagine the other side getting so many people out on a Friday to celebrate the leftward lurch of the Democratic Party. They’d probably be able to hold their event in a phone booth-with Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak. And that would be one chilly phone booth!”
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