Why Arlen Specter is in trouble

Polls are showing Sen. Arlen Specter trailing challenger Rep. Joe Sestak in the Democratic race for US Senate in Pennsylvania. Will he be the latest incumbent casualty?

Carolyn Kaster/AP/file
Sen. Arlen Specter (D) of Pennsylvania (l.) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D) of Pennsylvania greeted each other at a gathering sponsored by labor unions and citizen activist groups in Harrisburg, Pa., on Jan. 30. They will face each other in the Democratic primary for US Senate on May 18.

There are three reasons why Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter is sinking in his Democratic Senate primary race against Rep. Joe Sestak: One, his age (80). Two, his status as an incumbent. And three, until just over a year ago, he was a Republican.

“That’s a very dangerous narrative to run on in this cycle,” says Ken Smukler, a Democratic strategist based in Philadelphia. “These are Democratic primary voters who have been conditioned over the years to vote against Arlen Specter, and I think folks tend to underestimate just how difficult that hurdle is to overcome for him.”

Of course, he’s also Arlen Specter, with a 30-year record of aggressively advocating for Pennsylvania in Washington, and no one predicts the defeat of this institution lightly. And no analysts rule out that he can recover and win the primary, not least if something damaging comes out on Congressman Sestak in this last week before the May 18 vote.

But the momentum is definitely with Sestak, a 58-year-old retired career Navy admiral. On Tuesday, the Muhlenberg College/Morning Call daily tracking poll showed Sestak up by 4 points, the fourth straight day showing Sestak ahead. A Rasmussen poll out Monday shows Sestak leading 47 percent to 42 percent.

A lead vanished

Until recently, Specter had consistent double-digit leads in the polls. “No one knew Sestak, no one was hearing his message that Arlen is not one of us, and that he just switched to win reelection,” says Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin and Marshall College Poll in Lancaster, Pa.

Then a few weeks ago Sestak, who had been marshaling his resources, went up with TV ads, and the game changed. Sestak included a devastating clip of Specter on the day he joined the Democrats, on April 28, 2009, saying, “My change in party will enable me to be reelected.”

In other footage, Specter was shown on a stage getting a strong testimonial from President George W. Bush, and also appearing with former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and conservative former Sen. Rick Santorum (R) of Pennsylvania, all boogeymen (and -woman) for the left.

In essence, the primary is a referendum on Specter, who now appears in danger of becoming the latest casualty in a cycle heavily steeped in a “throw the bums out” mentality. It is what led Specter to switch parties in the first place.

In Florida, this same anti-establishment mentality led Gov. Charlie Crist (R) to announce on April 29 that he is running for Senate as a “no party” independent, after it became clear he would lose the Republican primary. And it cost three-term Sen. Bob Bennett (R) of Utah his seat at the state GOP convention last Saturday.

Specter is fighting back with an ad showing his strong endorsement from President Obama. But given Mr. Obama's track record in recent months – the Massachusetts Senate race in January and two governors’ races last November, all won by Republicans – it’s not clear that touting Washington establishment ties will help Specter.

Peaked too early?

The sharp turn in Specter’s fortunes also reflects a truism about politics – that most voters don’t tune in until late in the game. So while Specter was riding along, comfortably ahead for months, the danger sign was evident: Most voters did not know much about Sestak and didn’t have an opinion on him, so he had nowhere to go but up. Most voters knew Specter, and so he likely reached his high-water mark a while ago.

For Democratic primary voters thinking strategically, the key question is: Who will be a stronger challenger against the likely Republican nominee, conservative former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania? Pennsylvania-based analysts call it a tossup.

But the latest Rasmussen Poll shows Sestak faring better. Congressman Toomey beats Specter 50 percent to 38 percent, while Toomey beats Sestak by just 2 points, 42 percent to 40 percent, a statistical dead heat.


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