Why Republicans shouldn't take a Pennsylvania Senate win for granted

Polls suggested that Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey had a firm grip on his race with Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania. But new polls point to hope for Democrats here and elsewhere.

Matt Rourke/AP/file
Pennsylvania Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Joe Sestak attended a campaign event in Philadelphia on Sept. 24.
Matt Rourke/AP/file
Pennsylvania Republican Senate candidate Pat Toomey addresses a news conference in Philadelphia on Oct. 13.

Put another race back into play for the Democrats.

Two new polls show that in Pennsylvania, Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak is pulling even with Republican Pat Toomey in a race that most observers had largely written off as a sure Republican win.

A poll that came out yesterday from Public Policy Polling (PPP) has Mr. Sestak up by 1 point – though some polling experts expressed caution about reading too much into it, and noted that PPP has a history of giving Democrats an advantage.

But now, a voter survey from Muhlenberg College/Morning Call also has Sestak up 3 points over Mr. Toomey, and Republicans have conceded that their internal polling also shows the race narrowing.

Wednesday night, Sestak has an opportunity to make up more ground in a debate with Toomey.

So, what’s going on?

Part of it is demographics. Pennsylvania leans Democratic, and Democrats have a sizeable registration advantage.

“Anyone who expected a Republican Senate candidate to win by 10 or 12 points in Pennsylvania was somewhat naïve,” Toomey campaign manager Mark Harris told Politico.com.

And Sestak seems to be playing his cards well in the final stages, running both hard-hitting ads that try to highlight Toomey’s most conservative positions and paint him as a far-right candidate, as well as more positive ads showcasing Sestak’s past as a Navy admiral.

Enthusiasm for Sestak may also be growing after last week’s campaign rally hosted by President Obama in Philadelphia.

Despite the movement in Sestak’s favor, he still faces an uphill battle on Nov. 2. For one thing, polls continue to show a marked difference among enthusiasm between Democratic and Republican voters, with Republicans far more energized to get to the ballot box.

And while Sestak goes into the final month with a slight cash advantage, outside conservative groups have been heavily outspending liberal ones in the state – and seem likely to focus even more attention on Pennsylvania now that it’s clear Toomey’s victory isn’t a guarantee.

Most voters are decided, so, as in a number of close elections, it’s likely to come down to who does a better job getting out the vote – and that’s something that the state GOP generally does better.

Pennsylvania isn’t the only state that’s showing the Senate race narrowing – and Democratic chances improving – in the final weeks. And a number of Republican first-time candidates are making rookie mistakes.

In Kentucky, Democrat Jack Conway seems to be closing the gap on Republican Rand Paul, though Mr. Paul still holds a lead. In Colorado, Democratic candidate Michael Bennett is doing the same to Republican Ken Buck in an even closer race. Even Wisconsin – still a likely seat to be taken over by Republicans – has a narrowing race, with a recent poll showing Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold moving within striking distance of his Republican opponent, Ron Johnson.

Highlighting the importance of these races to Republicans, Sarah Palin came out on Wednesday with an endorsement for Toomey, as well as the Republican Senate candidates in West Virginia, Alaska, Kentucky, Nevada, Arkansas, and California.

“Senate races in particular have national significance when it comes to legislation like cap-and-tax,” she wrote on her Facebook page.

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