Rep. Joseph Sestak, helped by leftist activists, toppled longtime Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate primary on Tuesday.
The arch-liberal congressman won by a 53% to 47% margin over five-term Sen. Specter in the senator’s first reelection bid since he switched parties last year. One month earlier, a Susquehanna Poll showed Specter defeating Sestak by a margin of 42% to 28% among likely Democratic voters.
Much like the 2006 primary defeat of centrist Sen. Joe Lieberman (D.-Conn.) at the hands of anti-war Democrat Ned Lamont, the triumph of Sestak (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 0%) over Specter (lifetime ACU rating: 43%) was largely the work of leftist activists who are becoming increasingly powerful within the Democratic Party.
Like Connecticut’s Lamont, Sestak (a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral who opposed U.S. action in Iraq) benefited from the nationwide fund-raising machine of the antiwar Moveon.org. Specter, like Lieberman, had voted for the U.S. going into Iraq.
But where Lieberman had only upset the Democratic left over a few other issues, Specter had a long history of siding with Republican Presidents. Sestak hit that hard during the campaign. Helped by a $1.5 million television broadside in the last month of the race, the challenger denounced Specter for voting for the Bush tax cuts and for Supreme Court nominees John Roberts and Samuel Alito. (After President Obama nominated Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court earlier this month, Sestak supporters gleefully pounced on the fact that Specter had voted last year against her nomination as U.S. solicitor general.)
Sestak also slammed Specter for taking different positions on organized labor’s cherished “card-check” legislation (which would severely weaken the secret ballot in union elections) in recent years.
In the twilight days of the campaign, one much-discussed Sestak TV attack featured Specter with Sarah Palin during the ’08 campaign, being hailed by George W. Bush in ’04, and explaining to reporters that he changed to the Democratic Party “to be re-elected.”
Traditional Democratic powers were all solidly behind the newly minted Democrat Specter (who had made an earlier change from Democrat to Republican in 1965 to run successfully for district attorney of Philadelphia). His backers ranged from the President and Vice President, the major labor unions, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell, the city Democratic organization and much of the black clergy in Philadelphia. But they weren’t enough to stop Sestak or the political powerhouse of the far left.
When I was in Philadelphia and Harrisburg April 15-17, the consensus opinion among pundits and pols was that Republican-turned-Democratic Specter would probably win the Democratic primary on May 18th. But virtually everyone I spoke to said this with qualification, warning that challenger and two-term Rep. Sestak should not be taken likely.
“Joe is one tough customer and should never be written off,” said Philadelphia “superlawyer” James Baumbach, who has managed campaigns for both Democrats and Republicans in the Keystone State. “He could play very rough in the next month.”
Now the stage is set this fall for a classical ideological shootout, with the leftist Sestak squaring off against Republican nominee Pat Toomey, stalwart conservative and former congressman (who had narrowly lost in the Republican primary to Specter six years ago). Toomey, who has raised more money than any non-incumbent Senate candidate in the nation (more than $8 million), told me last month he was prepared to face either Sestak or Specter.
“They’re not all going to agree with me, but I’ll tell you, they’re going to know exactly where I stand,” Sestak told a pre-election meeting in Johnstown, Pa. Now Keystone State voters will have the opportunity to see a race of contrasts between Sestak and Toomey, with both of them sure to let all know exactly where they stand and differ.
“Son of Paul” Stands Tall in Kentucky
Like three Republican House primaries in Illinois earlier this year and the recent GOP nomination battle that denied renomination to Utah Sen. Robert Bennett, the race for nomination to succeed retiring Sen. Jim Bunning in Kentucky was a clash between the “ins” and the “outs” in the Republican Party.
Last night, the “outs” won, as ophthalmologist and first-time candidate Rand Paul demolished the favorite of the “ins”—Secretary of State Trey Grayson. Paul, son of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, rolled up 57% of the vote.
Paul’s victory was all the more impressive as many of his supporters among libertarians and independents could not cast votes for him if they had not registered as Republicans by December 31. Clearly aware of this, sources in the Bluegrass State told me the Grayson team made a concerted effort to turn out voters in areas that were traditional Republican strongholds, such as the district of 30-year Rep. Hal Rogers.
But it wasn’t enough to stop Dr. Paul, whose campaign was fueled by eager volunteers from the state’s large “Tea Party” movement and his father’s mighty nationwide fund-raising machine. Paul also had the early backing of Sen. Jim DeMint (R.-S.C.) and his Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee.
Both candidates agreed on most issues, but Paul put a stronger emphasis on repealing the Obama-backed healthcare bill and opposing government bailouts of industry and the stimulus package. Grayson, while also taking a conservative line on these issues, put greater emphasis on state matters.
Underscoring Grayson’s credentials as the “establishment” candidate was his support from former Vice President Dick Cheney, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R.-Ky.).
“On my side, I’m viewed as this proxy for McConnell,” Grayson told the New York Times on the weekend before the voting, “If I win or lose, it’s a big victory or loss for him. I think that’s an exaggeration.” (McConnell actually endorsed Grayson before Bunning announced his retirement last year, leading the angry Baseball Hall of Famer to strongly come out for Paul).
Exaggeration or not, Paul has won and, in a state that went for John McCain by a margin of 57% to 43% for Barack Obama two years ago, is the strong favorite over Democratic nominee and State Attorney General Jack Conway.
A Footnote: When I interviewed Rand Paul earlier this year, I asked him if there was any issue in which he disagreed with his famous father. Without hesitation, he replied: “He never accepts payment from patients through Medicare and, because a lot more of my practice depends on Medicare patients, I do.” Also, contrary to a widespread rumor, the younger Paul is not named for the legendary author and libertarian heroine Ayn Rand but carries a family name. That information came to me from Lew Moore, campaign manager for the elder Paul’s 2008 presidential bid.
Murtha seat won by Democrat
In terms of national politics, the most- watched race on “Little Super Tuesday” last night was the special election to fill the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha. (D.-Pa.).
Murtha’s longtime top aide Mark Critz narrowly kept the Western-Pennsylvania-based 12th District in Democratic hands, edging out Republican Tim Burns, a businessman and first-time candidate, with about 52% of the vote, with only a few ballots still to be counted.
Obviously the results were a disappointment to Republicans nationwide. Coming less than four months after Republican Scott Brown’s dramatic special election win in the Massachusetts Senate race, a Burns capture of the seat Murtha had held for 36 years would have provided major momentum to the GOP in the midterm elections this fall.
But is the Critz win a mandate for the Obama agenda and a sign Democrats are on the political rebound? Although Democratic publicists and administration spokesmen are likely to claim just that, a look at how Critz campaigned renders that conclusion ridiculous.
For weeks after area Democrats named him as their nominee, Critz ducked questions as to how he would have voted on the healthcare measure that passed the House, finally saying he would have voted against it. Critz also campaigned as an abortion opponent and strong supporter of the right to keep and bear arms.
On the day before the voting, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs told me he didn’t know if the President was “directly aware” of these three conservative positions taken by fellow Democrat Critz, but added “I’ve certainly seen those reports [of Critz’s stances] sure.” (President Obama himself never campaigned for Critz).
But these positions did not deter either the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee or major labor unions from bombarding the 12th District on Critz’s behalf.
As Politico reported days before the voting, “The AFL-CIO, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and Service Employees International Union are all on TV airwaves in the district and dropping mail pieces into union homes. Furthermore, officials from the state AFL-CIO are visiting workplaces throughout the district to urge support for Critz.”
Although Pennsylvania-12 is the lone House district of all 435 to go from backing John Kerry for President in ’04 to John McCain in ’08, it remains 2-to-1 Democratic in terms of registered voters.
For its part, the DCCC raised an issue in the closing weeks of the campaign that may re-emerge in other races with conservatives such as Burns who are close to the “Tea Party” movement: the fair tax, a national sales (or consumption) tax that many conservatives want in place of the income tax.
DCCC-run TV spots attacked Burns for supporting the fair tax, charging that the Republican hopeful supported higher taxes on groceries, gas and medicine. The ad cited an interview Burns gave last year in which he said he “would love to ultimately see the fair tax implemented.”
“Foul!” GOP campaigners charged, pointing out that in the same interview Burns said that a fair tax “straight out of the gate” was out of the question because “any discussion like the fair tax would have to be part of a debate on creating an entirely new tax code.”
Four days before the voting, former Rep. Phil English (R.-Pa.) told me, “I get the sense PA-12 is slipping away from the Republicans because of that fair tax attack.” Over protests from the Burns campaign that his words were being taken out of context, the DCCC “fair tax” ad was pulled over the weekend. But clearly, it had done its damage and is sure to re-emerge in other House races this fall.
As Critz was elected to fill out the remainder of John Murtha’s term last night, he and Tim Burns also won nomination to be their parties’ respective nominees for the full term this November. So stay tuned: the last chapter in PA-12 has yet to be written.
Lincoln On the Ropes
It wasn’t a good night for Sen. Blanche Lambert Lincoln (D.-Ark). While the two-term senator topped the Democratic primary, she nonetheless must face a run-off battle June 8 with her leading opponent, arch-liberal Lit. Gov. Bill Halter.
With most of the votes tallied, Lincoln was in a near tie with Halter (about 43% of the vote each) with the rest going to conservative Democrat D.C. Morrison. Lincoln becomes the first Arkansas senator to be forced into a run-off since Sen. John L. McClellan in 1972.
What made last night’s primary especially intriguing was the performance of the third candidate who forced the run-off. Little Rock businessman Morrison campaigned as an outright conservative, calling for repeal of the Obama-backed healthcare bill, the estate tax, and the federal income tax (to be replaced by a consumption tax). Where Morrison’s votes will fall in a run-off between two liberal Democrats will be a key question as the run-off approaches.
The top vote-getter in the seven-candidate GOP Senate primary was Rep. John Boozman who was poised to win an outright majority of the vote and avoid a runoff. Numerous polls have shown Boozman defeating either Lincoln or Halter in a state that has been trending more Republican.
Like Connecticut in ’06 and Pennsylvania this year, the Arkansas Senate primary is a study in a Democrat being liberal on most things but just not liberal enough to assuage the party’s increasingly left-wing (and very active) grass-roots.
While generally voting the liberal line (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 19%), Lincoln made some significant shifts on key issues in the last year. An original sponsor of organized labor’s cherished Employee Free Choice Act (which includes the “card-check” measure to gut the secret ballot in union elections), the Razorback State senator later came out against the legislation. Last year, she threatened to filibuster any healthcare bill in the Senate that included a public option (although, after weeks of holding out, Lincoln joined all fellow Senate Democrats in voting for the healthcare measure in December). She also opposed the “cap-and-trade” climate legislation.
Because of those positions and her support for a tax-funded bailout of Wall Street during the financial crisis in ’08, Lincoln faced vigorous opposition from the Service Employees International Union (which blitzed the state with more than $1 million in anti-Lincoln spots) and other unions. Steve Rosenthal, former political director of the AFL-CIO, mobilized anti-Lincoln voters on the ground.
Such support made Halter competitive, despite Lincoln’s spending advantage (her $3.1 million to his $558,147) and endorsements from Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Halter blasted the incumbent as “Bailout Blanche” and said he would have never voted to bailout Wall Street. He said he would have voted for the public option in a healthcare bill and supported “a woman’s right to choose.” For all the furor sparked by Lincoln’s change on “card check,” union favorite Halter would not take a position because, as he told the Washington Post, “it is no longer being discussed.” (He did say he favors a compromise that includes imposing sanctions on those who try to inhibit ‘democratic elections,’” reported the Post).