Joe Sestak distances himself from Democrats in close Senate race

The biggest problems for Rep. Joe Sestak, a Pennsylvania Democrat running for US Senate, might be that he is a Democrat and a member of Congress, analysts say. National polls show Americans turning against both, and Sestak's race is local proof.

By , Staff writer

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    New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (l.) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D) of Pennsylvania take questions during a news conference in Philadelphia Tuesday, Aug. 17.
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Senate hopeful Rep. Joe Sestak (D) of Pennsylvania today backed President Obama’s call on Labor Day for $50 billion in new stimulus spending to create infrastructure jobs – and, anticipating the president’s speech in Cleveland on Thursday, another $200 billion in research-and-development tax credits for business.

But in a campaign seasons where the polls are running hard against incumbent Democrats, Congressman Sestak says he wishes his party’s focus on jobs had come about 18 months earlier – and not just because the polls have gone south.

“Why now? We’re doing it for the polls, we should be doing it because it’s the right thing to do,” he said in a speech on the economy at Carnegie Mellon University.

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IN PICTURES: Pennsylvania Senate race

After an upset victory over five-term incumbent Arlen Specter in the Democratic primary, Sestak, a former three-star admiral, faces high headwinds in his race against former Rep. Pat Toomey (R), and his greatest opponents could be his connection to Congress and his own party affiliation.

For much of the race, Sestak has been distancing himself from national Democrats, especially on economic issues. While President Obama and House Democrats national Democrats pound away on Republicans as the obstructionist party of “no,” Sestak says that Democrats “lost a moment” early in the Obama administration when both sides of the aisle could have gotten together on a plan to help small businesses – not just those businesses deemed too big-to fail – weather a steep economic downturn.

He’s proposing a 15 percent payroll tax credit for small business – “the engine of job growth” – to help start hiring again, an increase in $50,000 microloans to small businesses, and federal guarantees for community banks small business loans to get credit flowing again.

“I’ve been advocating the same set of proposals for more than a year and now members of my party are coming around,” he said.

His opponent, Mr. Toomey, has focused on trying to connect Sestak to the Democratic Party as much as possible.

In a speech last month before the Pennsylvania Press Club, Toomey described the economy as “dismal.” “A very major contributing factor is the badly flawed policies being pursued in Washington by President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and very much Joe Sestak,” he said.

For his part, Sestak has sought to highlight the local benefits of his congressional service. His district office is open seven days a week and handles about four times the volume of constituent service – helping constituents navigate federal bureaucracy – as the average member of Congress.

But voter confidence in Congress as an institution – now at 8 percent – has never been lower, according to an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released Tuesday.

“One of Sestak’s biggest liabilities is that he’s a Democratic member of Congress. We’ve seen this in other races,” says Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook Political Report.

Other analysts see the same trends. “As the polling at the macro level continues to be poor for Democrats, we’re seeing more and more polling at the district level contribute to the deterioration,” says Nathan Gonzales, political editor of the Rothenberg Political Report, which on Monday downgraded the Sestak-Toomey race from tossup to leans Republican.

“Democrats are in a tough spot. People don’t think Democrats created the economic problem we have, but they want to see some sort of movement in the right direction and are prepared to blame the party in power if they don’t see it,” he adds.

Sestak concedes there is a national wave against Democrats. But he is trying to link Toomey to the policies that led to the recession. Toomey, he says, “is trying to run from his record. He’s using as a shield the anger at the economic damage his exact policies caused.”

“We put out the fire, but let’s not forget who lit the match and would have let the house be burned to the ground. We must not give Congressman Toomey the book of matches again,” he said.

IN PICTURES: Pennsylvania Senate race

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