The best observation that any politico can offer on the three-way 2010
U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania between Republican Pat Toomey and two
Democrats, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak and incumbent Sen. Arlen Specter, is
that it’s complicated.
So many unpredictable dynamics can affect it, including the economy,
health care, the war in Afghanistan, and people’s perceptions of
President Obama, Congress and the two political parties.
Pretend the Pennsylvania electorate is normally distributed in a bell
curve along an ideological spectrum. Now pretend two scenarios divide
the electorate; the candidate with the most people on his side wins,
If the candidates are Toomey and Sestak, the electorate divides more
evenly because of where each is positioned relative to the other. When
they split the difference between them, they also split the electorate
nearly in half.
Professor Lara Brown of Villanova University says that electoral math is
why Toomey should prefer Sestak over Specter: "… (If) Specter were his
opponent in a general election, Specter might be able to squeak out a
win by pulling Democrats who would have no one else to vote for,
independents who lean Republican, and liberal Republicans who voted for
Specter in the past."
In other words, Toomey should prefer to run against Sestak because those
former Specter GOP-aligned voters are more likely to side with him.
Sestak likely is OK with helping Toomey at this stage because Sestak,
first and foremost, wants a chance to compete in the general election.
If Sestak does the math, he knows that if he wins the primary, he should
be able to win the general election. Even if he and Toomey split the
electorate, the electorate favors Dems; there are 1.2 million more
registered Democrats than Republicans in the state.
Toomey and Sestak also are savvy enough to know the 2010 Senate race
will be all about Specter, not them.
Brown says the centerpiece for either challenger is contrasting his
civil campaign with Specter’s crass political maneuvering — first being
a Democrat, then running and serving as a Republican, then switching
back to Democrat when it appeared he might lose, then being for, against
and once more for labor’s Employee Free Choice Act.
"I mean, really," Brown says. "What is he going to say at the AFL-CIO
Which brings us to Sestak’s huge Obama problem: Next week in Pittsburgh,
the president and Specter will address the national AFL-CIO convention.
Sestak was excluded — an interesting decision, considering that labor
has sent out plenty of mailers asking union members to elbow Specter on
his tepid labor positions.
This is only the tip of the iceberg that Sestak will face in the form of
the Obama political machine.
If his primary race appears to be close (and in all likelihood it will
be), Sestak can expect Obama’s best operatives to organize a ruthless
campaign against him.
He had best be prepared for the Chicago politics coming his way — and
run as fast as he can to the "netroots" for support. And he had best be
prepared to tell voters and the media about his own party’s tactics
against him. If not, we will see another Toomey-Specter race.
Specter is counting on Obama and Gov. Ed Rendell to put him over the
top. They may not necessarily be assets, however.
Obama’s numbers continue to slide. Rendell’s numbers have fallen, too.
If he allows a state cigarette tax hike to pass, it will hurt
blue-collar voters more than white-collar voters — and that could hurt
him with the voting demographic he plans to help deliver to Specter.
Right now, Obama is losing ground but Republicans are not gaining any,
which makes any assessment premature. Yet Toomey has matured as a
candidate: He is edging to the center, thanks to the Democrats’
Sestak-Specter battle, and running more like the guy who held a
Democrat-leaning congressional seat for three terms.
Toomey still will have a tough time. Yet if there’s a sizeable national
trend toward the GOP in 2010, anything is possible; that’s how Rick
Santorum won his U.S. Senate seat in 1994.
Interesting times in Pennsylvania. But interesting, in this case, means