Rep. Joe Sestak blames Democratic leaders for the plunge in public support for overhauling the health care system, saying Wednesday they failed to defend proposals that helped carry the party to victories in 2008.
"They said it would be transparent. Why isn’t it?" said Sestak, a Delaware County Democrat, in a meeting with Tribune-Review editors and reporters. "At times, I find the caucus is a real disappointment. We aren’t transparent, not just to the public but at times to the members."
Sestak is challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in the May 18 primary, as is Dravosburg’s state Rep. Bill Kortz. Former Rep. Pat Toomey of the Lehigh Valley and Peg Luksik, a Johnstown activist, are seeking the Republican nomination for the seat.
A Quinnipiac University poll last month showed Specter holding a 53 percent to 30 percent lead over Sestak, a former Navy admiral, in the primary. Kortz, who often is overlooked, is not included in the polls.
Sestak says the two defining aspects in the polls in his favor are the high number of undecided voters and Specter’s re-election numbers. Recent polls have shown that fewer than 40 percent of people think Specter deserves re-election, a vulnerability considered dangerous by most pollsters.
Specter’s office said the senator "carried the torch" for President Obama’s health care message with town hall meetings and key caucus meetings, helping to secure provisions on tougher Medicare fraud enforcement.
"Senator Specter has consistently stated he has wanted the health care debate to be an open process, including supporting the bill being posted online 72 hours in advance of votes," his office said in an e-mailed response. "He’s supportive, in general, of giving Americans more access to government goings-on."
Sestak said political deals that Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and others cut in closing the health care bill were a disgrace: "To think that you would hold out to close a deal for a special interest is absolutely wrong."
Nelson gave his critical support to the Senate version of the health care bill after securing a provision for Nebraskans that will require the federal government to permanently pay the entire cost of Medicaid expansion in his state, while paying the costs of expansion in the other 49 states for just three years.
Nelson could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Sestak points to that move as one reason Americans are uneasy about Democrats. "They should be," he said. "I think that Democrats have failed as much as Republicans as erstwhile servants."
As his campaign gears up, Sestak has distanced himself from the Washington establishment and the Democratic Party. For months, he said, Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the Senatorial Campaign Committee chair, urged him to run; yet Sestak said he was asked to forget the idea when Specter, who is seeking a sixth term, switched parties in April after 44 years as a Republican.
"Three, four weeks later, Arlen converts, and they call and say, ‘Sit down,’ " Sestak said. Party leaders said he should drop out of the race to make way for Specter. "What kind of deal is this? If there’s anything that has to change, it has to be that."
"Clearly, the biggest obstacle that he must overcome is the Democratic leaders’ mandate of the party apparatus to support Specter," said Keystone College political scientist Jeff Brauer.
Brauer said without such a mandate, there is little doubt Sestak could lead in polls because rank-and-file Pennsylvania Democrats have given Specter a lukewarm reception.
Brauer said Sestak’s other challenges include fundraising and increasing his name recognition. That’s why Sestak said he drove across the state in a snowstorm at 2:15 a.m. from Bucks County to Westmoreland County, to meet with voters and party faithful.
"I need to let people know there’s a principled alternative," Sestak said. "How can you trust someone who switched parties to keep his job?"
Though Sestak’s $4.7 million campaign account trailed Specter’s by about $4 million at the end of the last reporting period in September, Sestak claims he has raised more than any challenger Specter has faced.
If Sestak beats Specter for the Democratic nomination, the most recent Quinnipiac poll showed Toomey winning over Sestak, 40 percent to 35 percent.
Sestak said he genuinely likes Toomey; in September, the two held a cordial health care town hall at Muhlenberg College, near Allentown, and drank beer together afterward. But he noted that he and Toomey have clear differences politically: "Pat Toomey voted for the same savage and regressive tax policies that favored the well-to-do. And he voted to deregulate Wall Street and let them gamble."
Toomey said that although he, too, likes Sestak, he finds it curious that Sestak would hit him on the topic of Wall Street. "Both he and Specter supported bailing out Wall Street, something that I vehemently and publically opposed," Toomey said. He described Sestak as a principled liberal, "which means he supports bailouts, spending, public options and a dramatic expansion of government."
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